Tapping Into the Military Mindset to Strengthen Leadership During Crisis

Cathy Lanteri, MD's picture Submitted by Cathy Lanteri, MD May 11, 2020 - 3:57pm
Tapping Into the Military Mindset to Strengthen Leadership During Crisis

As leaders try to help workers cope with the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, they must deal with issues they never had to confront before. Suddenly, hospital administrators are overseeing doctors and other staff members enduring unprecedented risks to their physical and mental health. Business executives, meanwhile, face threats to their companies’ survival as well as jittery employees worried about losing their jobs.

Many people use the metaphor of war to describe these trying times. In fact, the military’s work can serve as a valuable guide to managers thrust into leading during a pandemic. It has developed a series of well-honed crisis management techniques that can help those in charge navigate these unparalleled circumstances. In times of crisis, coaches knowledgeable of these techniques can be particularly helpful in supporting leaders to provide strength, direction, and hope.

When the military prepares troops for battle, it aims to accomplish its mission while minimizing immediate and residual emotional trauma. To do so, it asks team leads to focus on five essential leadership skills, encouraging them to building team members’ resilience through the following methods:

MISSION: The leader makes meaning for the teams’ mission, discussing why their undertaking is important and how each role is crucial. The focus is on building confidence and commitment.

  • In healthcare, this translates into speaking about why you choose to be at the hospital, in spite of the risk and anxiety it brings; put into words what you value about being there, what your presence means to patients and others depending on your care. Share what each team member brings to the team, what would be missing if any one of them was not there.

  • In business, lay out your vision of moving forward in clear and straightforward language. Employees are looking for words that provide a sense of stability and hope for the future. It need not be complex. Perhaps your vision is to do everything possible to keep employees safe and keep the business running.

LEADERSHIP TRUST: The team trusts their leader to prioritize their safe passage through the battle.

  • In healthcare, team leaders can check staffs' fatigue, tension and fears as they work. You can empower team members by pointing out their capabilities, help problem solve by brainstorming solutions together, and encourage time out when you see signs of exhaustion.

    Project calm to bring everyone’s emotional activation down. Let the team know you are a port in the storm. Show you are in this together. Be honest about the difficult situations you face; not being able to provide optimal care, being frustrated by policies or people, feeling the system has let them or their patients down. Empathize they may face situations with no good answers. Model that this is a time to stop using shame and blame.

    When you check in, expand your usual question from, “How are you doing, everything ok?” to “What is most stressful/challenging/difficult right now?” and “What could you use help with?”

  • In business, over communicate to keep anxiety from filling the information void. Talk in a way that balances the challenges you confront with areas where you see hope. Don’t over promise.

    Get broad input as you make difficult decisions. Show staff you’ve taken a wide ranging view in decision making. Be genuine in describing the why and how used to reach decisions.

    Don’t sugar coat the truth but discuss how you will prioritize staff well-being when difficult decisions are made.

    Show empathy by listening to staff needs and acknowledging them, even when they can’t be fulfilled.

SPECIFICITY OF SUCCESS: Success is concretely defined and only encompasses areas that they can control.

  • In healthcare, build psychological resilience during times of high patient death and limited resources by applying a mindset of success measured in maintaining focus on what they can control in spite of all they cannot.

    Remind staff to set realistic expectations for themselves, understanding they are working in never before experienced and ever changing circumstances with people who are tired and anxious. This is especially important in healthcare settings where providers are notoriously self-critical about problems they can’t overcome.

    Give them support to put aside negative thoughts to keep focused and moving ahead.

  • In business, success may be measured in how many prospective customers are called or getting out deliveries as promised, instead of new contracts.

    Include creating novel ideas as a measure of success, whether it’s a change in outreach, new products ideas, or working in different shifts.

POST MISSION DEBRIEF: After the battle, leaders recognize all that was accomplished in spite of the challenges.

  • In healthcare, post shift acknowledge the reality of what the circumstances prevented their doing, the loss and grief they faced. Recognize their strengths in carrying on in spite of this.

  • In business, identify team members at every level to check the pulse of other staff, ask how they and their families are coping. Teach how to listen effectively.

SUPPORTIVE FOLLOWUP: Availability of on-call support for emotions that arise after the group disperses.

  • In healthcare, identify where staff can access further support — this is especially important with providers leaving hospitals carrying fears of infection for themselves and their families, and reduced support if they choose to physically isolate themselves from loved ones.

  • In business, have a plan for further staff support, whether your EAP or an outside referral.

The stress people are under today brings an urgency to help leaders focus on resilience. Drawing from the lessons of crisis leadership, researched most in the military, seems particularly applicable to provide the best outcome and support for their employees.

Cathy Lanteri, MD, FAPA. Dr. Lanteri is an executive coach at Lanteri Coaching, Lexington, Massachusetts. Her work focuses on leadership development and communications. She previously served on staff at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. She is a board member of the Academy of Organizational and Occupational Psychiatry.

Paul Hammer, MD; FAPA; CAPT, MC, USN(RET). Dr. Hammer is a staff psychiatrist at Island Hospital, Anacortes, Washington. He has worked extensively with military organizations and is past president of the Academy of Organizational and Occupational Psychiatry. Dr. Hammer served 2 tours in Iraq and held the positions of Director of the Department of Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury as well as Director of the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control in San Diego.