One day I was walking out of my shift, and the next the world had completely tilted. We were going into national lockdown and I was required to be on standby. But very soon I found myself an almost permanent part of the hospital. At one time, for 3 full weeks, I literally slept, ate and washed at work. I couldn’t leave. To leave would have been inhumane.

By mid-April 2020, my fellow colleagues began to quickly reduce, one by one they had contracted the dreaded virus. Vigilance became part of the game. I was the youngest nursing sister in our department and had recently transferred from my hometown into the city. So I was still adjusting to my new surroundings both at home and at work.

Looking back, it’s funny how the world started to really understand the importance of nurses since the pandemic began. Everywhere you looked corporations and brands alike, were giving freebies to nurses, we were being given preferential treatment in supermarkets, we were being thanked left right and centre. But somehow I still didn’t feel essential, until the 22 of April 2020, a day forever etched in my mind.

On this day I arrived for work very matter-of-factly, with my usual sense of purpose i.e to make sure I could be of the utmost help during this unprecedented time. As I am sanitising and prepping myself, full PPE and all (mask, face shield, gloves etc), I get a call, to which I think “I am in radiology, why is paediatrics calling me?”. Apparently, a homeless woman with a 5-day old baby had been admitted and due to the dwindling staff complement, there was no nurse to attend to her. I was the only “free” nurse on call at the time.

So make my way, and as I get there and I find the woman is in full panic mode. A myriad of thoughts run through my mind; I don’t know the first thing about babies! Is she breastfeeding? How did she get COVID? This is my first direct encounter with a covid patient, will I get it too? Oh, my word, she just had the baby 5 days ago, how can I make her comfortable? Is my training enough to deal with this? By this time, I am not only hot and sweaty (those plastic gowns are SO hot!) but totally panicking myself.

Despite all these thoughts ramblings in my head I had to take it all in stride and figure it out. After all, this was fast becoming the “new normal” and I had to adjust very quickly. Suffice to say mother and baby are alive and well. However, the leadership lessons I learnt that day through this ordeal, are way too invaluable not to share.

  1. Not having all the answers is ok! In a crisis situation such as in my narrative, a patient was worried, anxious and scared. When things are outside your control, there is no playbook and so relying on your instincts and resilience is essential. It is a test of your adaptability but also an opportunity to show courage, a quality I believe should be key in any leader.
  2. Being visible and accessible is crucial to making crisis situations less stressful. It is important to make your patients or your employee feel connected to you, and more so supported. During the whole process of treating my patient, at every turn I wanted her to know that people to know that I’m accessible and never too busy to attend to her needs or challenges, no matter how big or small.
  3. Vulnerability means that you’re human. People tend to trust a leader that can show emotion, it is because such a person is more approachable. It is easier to trust someone who I know can empathise with how I feel. So in the context of business, where all employees are all going through the same thing at once, a leader who shows understanding, is open and compassionate is more likely to be genuine, inevitably you are more likely to get buy-in from your employees.
  4. It is all well and good to have the technical expertise, but its during crisis mode when the softer skills are most required. Soft skills help leaders communicate better and in turn more likely to get employees to listen, more so because its coming from a heartfelt and authentic place.

During times of crisis, your only fall back is previous experience. Therefore use this as much as possible to help navigate the crisis at hand, because in times of crisis, decisive action is needed. In an unprecedented crisis such as the covid-19 pandemic, I found that people really respect this kind of leadership, especially where they themselves are at loss because everyone is looking towards someone to rise up, someone to be their hero.