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Why Is It So Damn Hard To Be A Leader Today?

by TLD Group

Leaders, if it feels like guiding your organization is harder than ever right now, you’re not alone. After all, factors including high turnover, increased demand for emotional intelligence in the midst of complicated workforce well-being challenges, and societal unrest are all contributing to making your role more complex — and more draining. 

Research shows that attrition in organizations across sectors in every industry increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last five years, the average hospital turned over 100.5% of its workforce, with voluntary terminations accounting for 95.5% of all hospital separations, according to the 2022 NSI National Healthcare Retention & RN Staffing Report. Additionally, a report from Elsevier found that 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their current role within the next two to three years.

While these numbers don’t speak specifically to leadership turnover, one thing is clear: too many people aren’t happy or satisfied at work. The turnover in healthcare organizations also demonstrates the general challenge of working in the industry following the COVID-19 pandemic, including extreme fatigue and burnout, and leaders aren’t exempt from these challenges. 

We spoke with experts from The Leadership Development Group (TLD Group) to identify a few of the factors that are contributing to the difficulty of being a leader today.   

1. Dramatic changes in the world — and expectations — of work. 

It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way we think about work and what constitutes a worker. Whether work can or should be conducted in-person, fully remote, or a combination of the two and what constitutes an “essential” worker are top of mind. And, there are still residual changes taking place. 

“People are either highly anxious or burnt out from the stress of doing things differently in this rapidly changing world,” said Tracy Duberman, President & CEO of TLD Group. “While most of us are drawn to the industry because our work makes an impact, people are no longer willing to do so at the expense of their own  health and wellness.” 

According to Duberman, the paradigm has changed. Pre-pandemic, organizations recruited top talent by offering excellent compensation packages with the expectation they “owned” your time.  Today, employees are looking for more such as a promise for work-life balance, alignment on personal and company values, and a commitment to shared causes. Leaders are challenged to make important decisions about how to best care for their employees given these changing expectations while also motivating employees to achieve results. 

According to TLD Group Advisory Board Member Ron Phillips, the Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Sysco and Former CHRO, CVS Health & New York Presbyterian Healthcare System, the pandemic caused a permanent impact on the world of work, and effective leaders have to learn how to leverage this new situation.

 “Leaders need to engage their teams differently,” Phillips said. “It’s challenging to have team meetings with some individuals in the room and others on Teams or Zoom. Leaders aren’t able to walk down the hall to support and coach a team member, they now have to coach remotely and focus on outcomes.”

2. The need to manage constant, concurrent changes across organizations. 

The changes taking place in organizations are massive, overlapping, and fast. While organizations may be equipped to take on a single change effort, now, complex and necessary change efforts often take place concurrently. Plus, as the pace of change has increased, the impact of a single change effort is often out of date by the time it concludes. Leaders have to consider how to effectively implement and manage continuous and multi-faceted change efforts. 

“In the past, we focused on one macro change at a time, such as migrating to a new email system,” Duberman said. “Today, our clients are applying change management principles to complex multi-layered strategies like reengineering how services are delivered, such as from in a hospital to an outpatient or even home setting. These change initiatives are exponentially more complex.” 

Peter Farstad, Interim CEO of LifeSource  and TLD Group client, also noted the difficulty leaders face in keeping up with the current pace of change, which he said has increased in the last 3-5 years. 

“Leaders need to learn how to love and value change,” Farstad said. “We need to be nimble and allow team members to make errors which can be corrected on the path toward innovation and excellence. Leaders can even celebrate these errors as part of the pathway toward mission fulfillment. 

3. A lack of direction and constantly-changing visions. 

The pandemic also caused a lack of clarity on where companies are headed. Historically, the U.S. economy focused on the manufacturing and agriculture industries, but has moved to be a service-oriented economy with a heavy focus on technology. Given this change, leaders are tasked with figuring out their organizations’ place in the broader economy. 

Within the context of these larger economic transformations and other workforce challenges, Bob Sachs, TLD Group Advisory Board Chair and former Vice President of National Learning and Development at Kaiser Permanente, believes that it’s critical for organizations to find ways to chart a path forward, even if there are risks involved. 

“Uncertainty can freeze action at a time when taking thoughtful risks can be rewarded,” Sachs said. “Leaders need to balance protecting the resources of the organization and investing in new, and sometimes, unproven programs and processes.”

Once organizations have a desired future state, they need to identify the specific leadership skills and competencies needed to reach it. Given the uncertainty in the environment, though, there’s less organizational clarity and alignment around where organizations need to go — and what they need to do — to be successful. This makes it hard for organizations and leaders to move in a coherent direction. 

“In the past, strategies were designed to achieve results within a relatively known future state,” Duberman said. “Right now, we don’t know what the future may hold.”

Farstad gave a tip to leaders faced with this lack of direction: focus on strategy. “Focus on the most important things, and ensure that all ‘shiny objects’ are ignored,” Farstad said. “There are a million things that come our way that take our attention from the most important things. They must be ignored.”

Sachs also serves as the board chair for an agency that provides developmental and mental health services to young children, and noted that the organization is learning that forming strategic partnerships is another way to mitigate risks during uncertainty. 

“Developing relationships with effective partners can help to reduce the risk of new efforts and the demand on resources while also stimulating more innovation and impact,” Sachs said. “Success requires leaders to demonstrate strong collaborative skills, including the ability to align vision around a shared vision and approach across partners, resolving conflicts that arise when different stakeholders are engaged, and managing risks while taking action during uncertainty.”

4. The pressure to speak to societal challenges. 

What should we do to make systems more equitable and just? What’s our responsibility in the global political climate? What’s the safest way to work, and what precautions should be implemented? 

Leaders are being asked to speak to societal challenges and systemic inequities, and they’re expected to give the right answer when those in and outside of their organization ask for their opinion on critical issues including sustainability, the environment, race, and politics. 

“Leaders have to speak to all those things intelligently, and in a way that will resonate  with different audiences,” Duberman said. “Companies are being held to higher standards than ever before.” 

Given the stress that employees have undergone in the last few years, it’s not surprising that mental health and well-being have become more important than ever, Phillips said. 

“To manage all of this, leaders have to have advanced skills and levels of emotional awareness, empathy and compassion,” Phillips said. “They need to be good listeners.  And this is all the more reason to have a purpose-driven company and culture.”

5. A new, hyper-critical focus on healthcare. 

The pandemic brought heightened levels of attention to the critical role leaders play in the health ecosystem, specifically, Duberman said, because our industry was hard hit as both stewards of health (vaccine development for the pharmaceutical sector and care delivery for the provider sector) and caretakers. Leaders in the health ecosystem, more than any other, are expected to make wise decisions about public health. 

“The state of public opinion is hyper-critical on the provider sector,” Duberman said. “We’re at a point where people are taking a step back and saying, ‘are we really getting value for the amount of money that we spend on healthcare?’”

Farstad also noticed the rapid changes taking place in the healthcare marketplace. 

“While metrics for performance are increasing, proposed reimbursement is decreasing,” Farstad said. “Staffing is a universal problem, and we’re unable to reliably fill open clinical or administrative spots. Change is coming at us from all directions, which makes developing and implementing a coherent strategy essential.”

The expert executive coaches and consultants at TLD Group understand the unique challenges facing senior executives and other leaders in the health ecosystem. With the goal of easing the multiple challenges of leading today, we offer executive coaching to support leaders in reaching their potential and managing the rapidly-changing expectations and environment that those in the health ecosystem work. Learn more today. 

Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership

TLD Group

Written by TLD Group