1. Bolwell, Brian J. MD, FACP

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Leadership in a pandemic has many challenges, but for me it also can crystalize some fundamental leadership principles. The importance of honest communication and transparency during COVID-19 was essential, especially in the first few weeks of the crisis when there was so much fear and anxiety for the unknown.

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I believe it's impossible to overcommunicate, and it's absolutely vital to be honest and straight-forward in such a situation. If you do not have all the answers, say so and stay resolute in your quest to find solutions. Authenticity is more important than ever when leading in a crisis. Be yourself. Talk straight. Don't beat around the bush. Showing my personal vulnerability became a way to deeply connect with our entire cancer center and it had many unexpected benefits. Finally, for me, the past year has solidified my belief that if you are in a leadership position, use it to lift up others as much as possible.


Twenty years ago, I was a busy clinician running a bone marrow transplant program, and I was always concerned about my next immediate task. I walked too fast, appeared laser-focused on something of dire importance, and frequently projected a sense of grumpiness. I am embarrassed by that past behavior. A very important learning for me has been the importance of role modeling. Leaders are watched, and often mimicked. Rather than focus on my own self-importance, a far better action was, and is, to focus on others.


During my over 10-year tenure as cancer center chair, I have been increasingly impressed by how easy it is for me to brighten someone's day by simply acknowledging them, smiling, and saying hello. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stopping for a quick chat was always welcomed by all. It seems silly to me that making such a small gesture can be so uplifting. I am just a person with insecurities like anyone else. Yet somehow a leadership title gives one the opportunity to use it in ways that are not readily apparent.


Which brings me to an article I recently read in Harvard Business Review entitled "Don't Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work," by Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nault, and Nadav Klein. They believe that being committed to being kind has multiple benefits. First, whenever you are kind or give compliments to others, the recipient is always uplifted. It triggers positive emotions and builds self-esteem. Well, yes, that makes sense. Everyone enjoys receiving a compliment. And everyone really appreciates an unexpected act of kindness.


Equally importantly, being kind can be beneficial to those who are being kind in a couple of ways. First, it helps our self-image. The authors state, "our acts of kindness make us believe we have what it takes to be a good person." Kindness can elevate a sense of meaning in our lives. Additionally, recent studies suggest that giving compliments can make us happier than receiving them. The authors believe that giving a compliment requires an active commitment to thinking about someone else, which is a good way to feel more connected to them. The article states that compliments can therefore be a "social glue" enhancing connections and relationships.


For me, I find all of this to be true. I remember many years ago somebody told me that, if I wanted to feel better about myself, I should go help someone in distress or need. That is a truism that I strongly believe. Being kind is similar-if you stop and say hi to a co-worker and show a genuine interest in how they are doing, they will certainly feel good about the encounter, and so will you!


Why are some people hesitant to give compliments? The authors suggest that the idea of approaching someone and saying something nice can trigger social discomfort and anxiety. In my opinion, being open and exhibiting kindness requires some degree of vulnerability, which always risks rejection or shame. While this may be true, I believe that the upsides dwarf the risk of social rejection. I know that the more I do this, the more I enjoy it, and the easier it is to make it part of a routine.


The article concludes with suggestions of how to promote kindness in the workplace. Step one is to lead by example. Giving compliments may motivate team members to mimic the behavior and generate norms of kindness in their teams. I totally agree with this essential point. Leaders should model behavior that is elevating for their organization. Again, if you are a leader (and all of us are to some degree) you are watched. Strongly consider demonstrating positive character traits that you want others to emulate. It will be positive for them, and it will be surprisingly positive for you.


The other suggestion in the Harvard Business Review article that resonated with me is to devote a minute or two on virtual meetings to "kindness rounds" in which people can acknowledge the good work of other team members. Clearly one major downside of not meeting in person is the loss of social connection. Hallway conversations are so important to generate team camaraderie and good will, yet for many people, that opportunity no longer exists. If you aren't able to meet in person, then I would suggest setting aside time in your virtual meeting to socialize and recognize team members' accomplishments. Be nice, kind, and complimentary. The potential benefits are very real. Give it a try!


BRIAN J. BOLWELL, MD, FACP, is Chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine. Cleveland Clinic is a top 10 cancer hospital according to U.S. News & World Report.


Straight Talk: Today's Cancer Centers

Brian J. Bolwell, MD... - Click to enlarge in new windowBrian J. Bolwell, MD, FACP. Brian J. Bolwell, MD, FACP