There’s no denying the fact that Covid-19 is at a tipping point. As the virus spreads thick and fast, we are, more or less, as clueless about its comportment as we were during the time of its onset. So the biggest question before humanity at this juncture is: How do we stay productive during these trying times? How do we rise above odds when all odds seem to be against us? How do we stay upbeat amid the din of our panic-stricken heartbeats?
Every chaotic situation calls for effective leadership. But in these dark, dreary times, the conventional leadership of feudal psyche and power distances won’t do; in fact, it will prove counterproductive. We don’t need old-school bosses; we need a disruptively pragmatic leadership of multiple dimensions. For this to happen, a reverse mentoring needs to take place. From my personal experience, I can say that leaders need to undergo humbling experiences to be able to appreciate the essence of true leadership. In the highrisk phase of self-isolation, when I made my own beds and washed utensils, I became positively aware of my limitations of capacity, as also the need to place trust in more competent colleagues with a better grasp on the given problem. The ingrained humility of these household chores helped me keep my ego, an unknowingly heightened sense of self, at bay.
Given an unprecedented crisis like Covid, trying to justify one’s leadership position is pointless. That it is an impossible endeavour is beside the point. As new challenges surface on every front, the CEO must answer key questions, not shoot instructions by default: Who’s best equipped to extinguish a given fire? When and where do I take a backseat to let more competent generals take charge? Knowing who to follow in specific contexts calling for specific expertise is a key leadership attribute. It’s not delegation but conscious empowerment and contrary to popular perception, it enriches leadership, never undermines it.
The pandemic protocol demands a fully-grown leadership marked by collaboration, not competition. “Leadership from behind” is the need of the hour, where scientists and doctors lead from the front in laboratories and hospitals, while politicians and activists lend support from behind across governmental and public platforms. In this shared data-driven leadership protocol, nobody is an expert, not even in the medical fraternity. Each draws from each other’s foresight, insight and hindsight, whether anesthesiologists, physicians, pathologists, radiologists, pulmonologists, or hematologists. In the field of action, a wolf-pack behaviour would be the best leadership behaviour — with the leader operating from the rear, ready to take the plunge in any direction, with competent professionals in the middle, tasked with protecting the front-end as also the back-end, and in constant touch with the leader.
This is not to say leadership only abounds in medical settings, government offices or activist spheres. Leaders are required everywhere; in fact, one should be one’s own CEO in his or her own right during these Covid times. This pandemic has triggered unimaginable fear (and ensuing panic) among people. This emotion is essentially a function of three looming facts:
1. No silver bullet on the horizon — whether drug or vaccine
2. Recurring fear of death, of being claimed by the virus sooner or later
3. Forced inaction and unproductivity for a minimum of three weeks
Now, how do we counter each of these fears? First and foremost, almost 90 percent of the cases get better by helping them strengthen their immune systems. That should come as a breather in countering 1 and 2. According to a research by HCG Hospital Karnataka, the thymus gland in our bodies plays a key role in activating the immune system. It maintains the memory of a virus infection and prepares the cells for a sustained and long term fight. This acquired immunity invariably takes over to counter the viral infection in 90 percent of the cases. So, clearly, the vulnerable group that we need to protect is the elderly above 65 years of age and those with co-morbidities, typically non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular ailments, hypertension, and disorders caused by substance abuse, predominantly alcohol and tobacco. Apart from proper medication, a shielding triangle of three critical nodes is an absolute must to strengthen the immunity of our elders:
As regards the third point, with Covid wrath yet playing havoc, we are bound to suffer on three key fronts: Psychological, Economic, and Behavioural. Let’s tackle each aspect one by one:
An empty mind, more than the proverbial devil’s workshop, is a potent breeding ground of social negativity and depression, which if left unchecked can even trigger suicidal tendencies. Given the dark, dreary times, yes, we are going to feel lonely and low at times, but there are ways to get out of the rut. The moment you feel low, reach out to someone in your perimeter of power and address the need, however inconsequential it may appear to be, may be help a migrant on the roadside, or tend to a stray dog wandering aimlessly in search of food. Nothing can be more therapeutic than doing your bit, oblivious of the larger cause.
Sadly, an immediate consequence of inaction is a fractured work culture. As organisations big and small drastically curtail production volumes and downscale service spectra, an unfortunate cascade seems inevitable — beginning with pay cuts, graduating to job cuts, and eventually translating into pocket cuts, implying both drastic fall in spends, as also unethical social behaviour rooted in misery and deprivation.
To escape this vicious cycle, industry and business leaders need to reinvent systems and re-engineer processes, redesign continuity plans, and reshuffle the existing workforce, avoiding job cuts to the extent possible. Measurable business value is not just about toplines and bottom lines. Former Chief Justice of India Justice M.N. Venkatachalliah, one of the most revered mentors, once told me: “We must envision India’s development beyond GDP, as an expansion of freedom across spheres.” Hope our business sector takes a cue and works on disruptive innovations that can gainfully accommodate as many people as possible.
Having said that, even employees need to proactively turn their own leaders — whether yet employed or at home — in looking at ways to move up the value chain of personal and professional development, maybe get into writing, enroll for certification courses, pursue a hobby like a career, hone an existing skills and the like. When things get normal which they would sooner or later, this contemplative effort will bear fruit for sure.
Apart from the unprecedented doom it has spelt, this virus has lent us some ovenfresh perspectives. In hindsight, our pre-Covid snaps of mask-free faces, mingling with others in social gatherings to glory, leaves us baffled beyond words. The virus has underlined the need for human connect which we had all this while undermined in our tech-enabled worlds of FB posts, Instagram snaps and twitter quips. The virus has taught us to relish the life that abounds in our vicinity — of families and friends — rather than cherish lustrous Facebook memories posted for posterity.
Last but not the least, I must come to the larger issues of my own fraternity. At a time when Covid runs riot, fear has consumed most medicos, a tug of war almost paralysing them to inaction: between duty towards patients versus responsibility and love towards family. This conflict is adding unimaginable duress to their personal and professional lives. How to counter the fear of the virus all day while maintaining the healing touch is a monumental challenge of Covid times.
The goal of education is knowledge and the goal of knowledge is service. This dictum epitomises what a doctor should do and stand for. Beyond doubt, the medical fraternity faces the ultimate litmus test of the century. I would like to remind my comrades of the prophetic words of quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” With unconditional faith in God and his plans, serve your patients with love, reassure them of your presence, come what may.
When I leave for home each day, I don’t see my home gates right away, I need to pass through my hospital doorways first. But I know for sure I will reach home if I keep traveling. Our destination may not be in the line of sight, but the journey must be traversed with transcendental faith and therapeutic fortitude. We’ll be home sooner or later!
The writer is the Regional Director, Head Neck Surgical Oncology and robotic surgery and the Associate Dean for Centre of Academic Research at HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Centre, Bangalore.