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18 June 2020
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Covid-19: the virtually visible leader

By Dr Elizabeth Loney

Associate Medical Director and Consultant Radiologist, Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS FT

I have often heard others talk about the importance of being ‘visible’ as a leader and seen first-hand the difference it has made when an executive visits a department in person, or spends time ‘walking in others’ shoes’. As the COVID-crisis took shape it felt like a knee-jerk reaction to dress in PPE and visit those on the frontline. But the dichotomy of wanting to be there for staff and patients, whilst at the same time keeping them, and oneself, safe was apparent to many.

Some leaders found themselves in vulnerable groups (even executives have underlying medical conditions) and had to shield. Others, not the frontline, felt useless. What good were they doing ‘distracting’ busy workers from sick patients, wandering around wards where they were not needed?

Personally, as a radiologist far removed from ward life, I felt guilty. Guilty for not going to the wards and emergency department (ED), and then guilty when I did go. My first instinct was to refresh my training and offer myself up to wherever needed an extra pair of hands. I put on some scrubs and presented myself in ED, ready and willing to help, only to find it largely deserted; there were no patients for me to see. I chatted to staff who described it as feeling like Accident and Emergency used to, when only really sick people came. I found a stethoscope, felt better for doing something and was told how great it was that a senior medic had come to visit. But was that enough?

Working from home has often been talked about but sometimes felt like skiving. If you were not in the hospital or department were you really working? Or perhaps you were just sat around drinking coffee and watching daytime TV? In the new COVID world it has become the norm for many. And how much more efficient it can be! No driving to meetings, moving between sites, struggling to find parking or running late. Provided one is disciplined and has no distractions it is possible to do so much more in less time. But for others it has been a struggle, revolving around home schooling or toddlers demanding constant attention, or feeling isolated and missing ‘real’ people. Finding a balance between home and work-life has taken time.

Virtual meetings require new skills. Chairing them can be a challenge, but once you are used to ‘raising you hand’ or using the ‘chat’ function it is amazing how smoothly they can run. Much-needed investment in IT infrastructure to allow home working has miraculously appeared. Being a leader no longer means having to be on the wards, you can be visible to many at once from your own home. I have seen great examples of ‘virtual’ leading: daily bulletins with photos; videos, shout-outs and staff contributions to keep people up to date; weekly executive-level live updates for medical staff with the ability to ask questions; as well as blogs and video diaries.

So, I ask myself, is this the era of the ‘virtually visible’ leader? Will we, as leaders, come out of lockdown as we went in? Or will we, like a butterfly breaking free from its cocoon, emerge as something more? The latter, I hope.

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