Pivoting in leadership during a public health crisis: When change is thrust upon us

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I was SOPHE President and department chair working and living in the New York suburbs which was a major epicenter of the COVID19 pandemic when the crisis began.

It’s hard to remember when it started. The dates are foggy in my mind, but the moments of change and pivoting are real. The Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut was hit hard and fast during the early days in March. In fact, the cases in New York City tripled in three days before the middle of March, and those numbers kept rising fast. As an area connected by commuters using public transportation, it was just a matter of time before we were also seeing numbers higher that many places in the county.

At our university, we had an outbreak scare early on forcing the university to close right before spring break and not reopen.

Simultaneously, SOPHE’s leadership needed to consider alternatives to its in-person conference in April and as an academic department, we needed to pivot to teaching, advising, and working fully online and from home.

No one was prepared for this. Not for this sudden change, as it came quickly and without much warning because we weren’t fully grasping what had been happening around the world and in the U.S.

Weeks later, this head spinning rush of change hasn’t stopped and, daily. There are new challenges, increasing numbers of cases and deaths, and constant stress and worry about not knowing what the next day will bring.

Reflecting over these past few months, at first what become immediately obvious was the rate in which the disparities and privilege emerged as we began living a “new normal” life.
The privileges of having a job that allows you to work from home, having the access and means for your kids to seamlessly learn at home, and the ability to order groceries and other essentials to be delivered.

In sum, social distancing itself, is a privilege not shared equally by all, and certainly not by all of our students or SOPHE members. First, we had to make sure all of our “people” had access to continue working and learning as best as they could during this time of uncertainty. It was abundantly clear that everyone was not going to weather this storm equitably.

The success I have seen in this great pivot is due to these essential elements we already live by in health promotion work:

    1. Start where the people are; find out what the lived experiences are for others as it may not be the same as yours.
    2. Cultivate a culture of collaboration and mutual trust.
    3. Employ effective and accessible communication channels.
    4. Allow everyone to have the space and time they need to adapt to the change in their own way.

For all of us in health promotion, whether we are students, researchers, practitioners, leaders, academics or some combination of all of these; we understand and embrace the need for change and understand the importance of strong, compassionate leadership in times of crisis.

I remember the other pandemics of our recent times; HIV and Ebola, and how presidential leadership handled them differently and with tragically different outcomes.

We are “change agents.” We facilitate change by presenting alternatives to how the world could work, by organizing communities to help increase empowerment to make changes, and by working with policy makers to develop legislation to change our current, status quo.

In these examples, and in my own work, there has never been time when the need for change and compassionate leadership was thrust upon us not from a person or from a policy, but from a pandemic; a global health threat that virtually shut down the world.

Jean Breny, PhD, MPH
Immediate Past President
Southern Connecticut State University