Lessons Learned: How COVID-19 Changed Healthcare Leadership

15.8% of healthcare executives reported that Emotional Intelligence and Team Building were key to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

15.8% of healthcare executives reported that Emotional Intelligence and Team Building were key to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furst Group's chairman, Bob Clarke, and principal, Tim Frischmon, surveyed thousands of healthcare executives to bring you valuable leadership lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. 15.8% of healthcare leaders report that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Team-Building were key to team success over recent years. Here is the finale of our three-part leadership series. In it, we reveal meaningful insights from your peers on the value of improving EQ and team-building skills during times of unrest and beyond.

5 race and age diverse healthcare leaders express their lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic on emotional intelligence and team building.


In the final part of our reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital to note the perseverance of our nation’s healthcare organizations. Many teams successfully navigated change and led the industry into a more resilient and people-centered era

Through empathy and compassion, leaders and teams pushed through the unknown and immense challenges. This was supported further by the results of our recent survey of thousands of healthcare executives who shared their lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three themes emerged:
Bar graph displays that 15.8% of healthcare leaders say that emotional intelligence and team building were key to success during and post pandemic.
1. Agile Leadership
2. Communication and Trust
3. Emotional Intelligence and Team Building

Roughly 16% of respondents highlighted Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Team Building as key lessons and saw the value of building these competencies within their leadership style. 

One such way teams came together during this time was by leaning into empathy—a competency that can often be forgotten as one of the greatest leadership strengths to employ.

Having provided executive recruitment and leadership consulting solutions to clients across the healthcare continuum for more than 40 years, we understand how crucial a role empathy plays in healthcare leadership, particularly during conflict. In fact, leaders who practice empathy build stronger, more connected, and innovative teams—not to mention their influence and contributions to cultivating people and talent-centric organizational cultures. The responses underscore the importance of interpersonal skills, often referred to as soft skills, in guiding teams through adversities.

In the following, we delve into this critical theme, share your peers' unique insights into how EQ and team building have fostered resilient teams during the pandemic, and offer practical ways you can continue to improve these skills within your own team and organization.   
The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Team Building

The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Team Building

Leading with empathy and compassion was a strong, recurring theme in the survey, with respondents highlighting increased emotional intelligence and team building as keys to leading their teams through the toughest moments. The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) emerged in the 1990s when psychologists Peter Salovey, John Mayer, and Daniel Goleman introduced it to the world. The idea that “an ability to identify and manage emotions greatly increases our chances of success” quickly took off and has influenced how people think about emotions and human behavior ever since.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence are generally more attuned to their team's needs, better at managing stress and cultivating conflicts, and adept at creating a positive and productive workplace culture that values teamwork and authenticity. These qualities make them more effective leaders. Respondents highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence in healthcare leadership. In sum, leaders with high EQ are often more effective in their roles, create better teams, and contribute to developing healthier organizational cultures.

Here are Three Behaviors of Emotionally Intelligent Leaders:

  1. Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: Leaders with high EQ have a deep understanding of their own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and motives. This self-awareness helps them manage their behavior and reactions, build stronger relationships, and lead others more effectively. Because they can control their emotions and impulses, they can remain calm and composed, even in challenging situations.

  2. Empathy: Leaders who understand the emotions and perspectives of others excel at connecting and collaborating, fostering trust and mutual respect. This is also a cornerstone of developing psychologically safe cultures where teams thrive.

  3. Motivate & Inspire: Leaders who develop strong emotional intelligence tend to motivate themselves and can inspire and motivate others. They excel at creating a clear vision and setting challenging goals while remaining committed to achieving them. 

    Additionally, the lessons learned from the pandemic underscore the need for EQ in healthcare leadership. Executives must not only manage their own stress but also be attuned to their team’s stress levels. This involves recognizing triggers that can negatively impact communication and manifest as flight, fight, or freeze responses.

    Regular check-ins are essential, especially during challenging times. Leaders need to acknowledge their own stress levels and encourage open discussion about stress among team members. Nurturing deep interpersonal connections, leading with empathy, and providing opportunities for rest and recovery can lower job anxiety and foster resilience in the face of adversity.  

Survey Responses: EQ and Team Building

Here's what respondents had to say about the roles of EQ and Team Building during and post-pandemic:

Perseverance, compassion, and understanding.
~ Cheryl Fried, Former President & CEO – Blue Ridge Hospice

I have learned how to leverage technology and various employee engagement tools and techniques as an enabler to allow my team to show up where they are and be flexible with work arrangements without productivity loss. Additionally, I developed a deeper understanding, empathy, patience, and connectedness with employees who had/have responsibilities for home, schooling, or dealing with the loss of a loved one as a result of the pandemic. Also, I have a heightened sense of using the company’s mission, values, and voice of the customer to drive key decisions. ~ Stephen Harris, President – Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois

I have learned so much about who I am as a leader and who I want to be as a leader. I’ve learned more than just endurance and selflessness; I try to lead every day with optimism. And look for ways to grow trust with my employees and colleagues. I meditate every day and instill a sense of calmness. I learned that during the pandemic, in a sea full of chaos, your team is looking directly at you and how you are going to react in uncertain situations. Leading with a sense of calmness when under pressure helped us to focus and get critical work done. ~ Carrie Harris-Muller, SVP, Chief Population Health Officer – OhioHealth

I’ve learned so much – about the importance of resiliency and flexibility (needing to pivot quickly as modes of work changed and priorities changed seemingly overnight and on an ongoing basis as the length of the pandemic set in). Most of all, I learned to be a more patient and understanding leader, recognizing that others were also experiencing so many unknowns both in and outside of the workplace, and it was important to take more time to appreciate the context under which they were operating in terms of setting expectations and communicating about developments at work. ~ Deb Oberman, SVP – Help at Home

The importance of being a compassionate and empathetic leader. I believe it has been necessary over the past four years to show compassion to all team members/employees. And by doing so, our results have never been better. Team members are willing to go the extra mile when needed, knowing just how much you care about them. I have always had compassion for others but less ability to put it into practice and what it meant for someone’s day-to-day job. Showing my true self and the compassion that I have for others has allowed me to show my authentic self and allowed us to turn around our results and our employee engagement. ~ Amy Ronneberg, CEO – National Marrow Donor Program

Trust in team members and vulnerability to make decisions has become more prevalent given the remote working environments and fast-moving trends we have seen in the past 4 years. Changes in employer/employee relationships have impacted how we attract talent and retain strong leaders. I also believe that we are more aware of the fragility of our healthcare system and the importance of efficiencies and patient throughput to meet demands. The necessity to ensure people work at the top of their license and maximize their value becomes more important when resources are limited. ~ John Johannessen, Senior Executive Officer – AdventHeath

That ‘servant-leadership’ was not simply thinking ‘less-about-yourself’ and was more ‘thinking less of myself” instead. This was a small but powerful paradigm in the thinking of how leadership is delivered. The other important aspect was a concentration on how to hold more powerful and impactful meetings. This required a concentration on the purpose of the meeting, the pre-meeting, and how to properly close a meeting for maximum effectiveness. ~ Mark Mixer, CEO – HealthOne Alliance & Chair - The HRA Council.

Emotional Intelligence and Team Building Exercises: NuBrick Partners 

A practical way to boost Emotional Intelligence is to identify stress reactions in crisis situations and minor conflicts. Our executive and team leadership consulting experts at NuBrick Partners created a practical tool to improve EQ in our webinar entitled Above the Line/Below the Line. Utilizing this tool has helped hundreds of executive leaders practice self-awareness, EQ, empathy, and mindful behaviors in moments of crisis.

Leadership Lessons on EQ and Team Building

Overall, respondents expressed positive sentiments about lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. They echoed confidence that these experiences accelerated personal and team development while also highlighting skill and competency gaps that may have existed prior. 

As healthcare executive recruitment and leadership consulting experts, we continue to observe strong trends toward hiring executives with leadership strength in these areas. Developing these critical competencies will increase psychological safety in your workplace culture and accelerate executive team performance. Building stronger teams means attracting and retaining leaders who can adapt quickly to ever-shifting dynamics while building trust and connection through authentic, compassionate communication. In parts one and two of our blog series, we explore developing agile leaders and expand on the communication and trust needed to build your team’s resilience.

For a deeper dive into this data, download the full survey below. In it, we explore each of these key themes in detail and share strategies to help you further develop and lead your teams through times of uncertainty and beyond. Catchup on part 1 of the series here.


* Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in direct quotes are solely those of the respondents and not necessarily those of their respective organizations, Furst Group, or NuBrick Partners.

Published by Furst Group