Leading by Greatness During Crisis

Humility, vulnerability, generosity are keys to trust and career building.


Leading by greatness is the capacity to inspire your teams to extraordinary performance by bringing the fullness of who you are into the way you show up and lead each day. In times of crisis, this capacity is more important than ever.

We are conditioned to behave professionally at work. We bring our mental capacities, our skills and our training to work, but we tend to mask our deeper, authentic beings. And yet, our authentic selves are the only vehicle we have by which to inspire the trust of others. By hiding our deeper selves, we inhibit trust-building and inspiration.

In times of crisis more than ever your people want to know how you are feeling, not only what you are thinking. When we wear our professional “mask,” people wonder what lies beneath it. Without having some level of insight into your feelings and beliefs, it is hard for them to trust you.
In the Lead by Greatness leadership philosophy, there are three key levers of trust: humility, vulnerability and generosity.

Humility is knowing that as unique, talented and qualified as you are, you are also part of something much bigger than you. But it is more than your being part of something bigger than you. Humility is believing that you are here to serve something bigger than you and people other than you. Understanding that we are all here to serve, although we are each free to choose who or what we serve and how we wish to serve them, is the foundation of leadership humility.

Leaders in healthcare are particularly fortunate in that their vocation is obvious and ever-present. There are, however, two risks to a healthcare leader’s humility. First, there is the risk of hubris resulting from the loftiness of healthcare’s higher purpose. Professionals can easily forget that the individual sitting in front of you is the individual you are here to serve at that moment, no matter who he or she is. Leaders need to inspire professionals with this ethos. Second, as healthcare has become more focused on efficiency-driven processes, it is too easy to lose focus of the human suffering and needs of the person in front of you. Policymakers might treat healthcare as a set of data points. For the professional, though, healthcare is about real humans, one as important as the next; a single life is as important as 1,000 lives. Patients feel your energy and know the inner place from which you are approaching them. As such, your care is as important for their health as is your expertise. 

Vulnerability is not the indiscriminate and uncontained bearing of your soul or revelation of your deepest feelings. Leadership vulnerability is making sure that the image you project to others is aligned with your identity. Vulnerability is knowing what your true value-drivers are (the values that are core to who you are as a human being) and allowing the people around you to experience them. It requires that you draw on your value-drivers when you make decisions, have conversations and act. 

It is natural that healthcare professionals protect themselves from emotional entanglement with patients by adopting a professional and somewhat impersonal veneer. It is valuable in building trust to open yourself a little and share some of your own vulnerabilities and those of the healthcare system. Show the way to your teams by starting to open up to them in ways that are authentic and vulnerable.

Generosity is not unconditional giving; such giving is not sustainable. Leadership generosity means investing your time, attention and resources into people who matter to you. Investing in them rather than donating to them means you have expectations of some form of return. It is generous to let people know why you are investing in them and what your expectations are. This way they know what to do to make you feel satisfied with your decision to invest in them.

The barrier to leading with heroic greatness is the impact of fear on our limbic nervous systems, triggering us into defensive emotions and responses. When we react defensively, we tend to focus on our own survival and that of our immediate family to the exclusion of any notion of service to others. During crisis times, it is natural to default into survival mode, making defensive decisions that may serve us in the short term but could cause destructive harm in the longer term. This is more so for leaders in healthcare who often work under conditions of emergency and stress and can easily be triggered into impatience as they focus on their own most immediate pressures. Being generous with your time and attention is difficult to achieve when a professional is being measured primarily by efficiency. A course of action is to help the people in your teams balance the system’s needs for efficiency with the patient’s need for care and attention.

In times of emergency, we naturally first respond to the immediacy of the crisis; however, as soon as possible thereafter, it is important to shift gears from a defensive, fear-driven stance to one of heroic greatness. This shift requires first and foremost that we reconnect with the people who matter to us both at work and at home and who may not have felt our presence while we were focused on our response to the crisis at hand. Our reconnection must go beyond the transactional. We need to find ways to connect with people on a deeper, existential level. They need that from us, and as leaders, we need it too.

Through the crisis we may have been doing a great deal of communicating with people using various technology platforms. But communicating does not necessarily mean connecting. We connect with others when making them the center of our attention during our interaction. It is hard for people to feel this over the phone or even a video conference. It is also difficult to make the other person the center of our attention when we are in crisis mode and worried about survival.

As with all trust-building activities, connection should contain all three ingredients of trust: humility, vulnerability and generosity. When reconnecting with the people in your life who matter, make sure you are not multitasking and that your attention is not split. Doing other things or thinking about other things while talking to someone does not demonstrate humility and service of the other. Do your best to focus all your attention on the person with whom you are engaging. Giving another your undivided attention is one of the most generous things you can do for them. Inquire about them personally, not just professionally, and expose some of your own vulnerability by sharing with them what you are struggling with and what you find particularly challenging. In addition, demonstrate genuine interest in how they are managing and in how their families are doing. Ask them what they are struggling with the most. When they share this with you, don’t feel obliged to offer advice; giving them your attention is what they will value. 

This approach of connecting with people using humility, vulnerability and generosity is crucial not only in times of crisis. This approach is also a key component in building your career. Professional competence is not the only factor that drives career advancement. Being trusted by your peers and a sought-after resource of wisdom, guidance and support is important for the development of a career in any organization. In healthcare, these factors weigh even more heavily than in other industries because leaders in healthcare depend so much more on the trust they inspire in the people they lead, the stakeholders they engage and the communities they serve.

Connection is the key to trust, and trust is the vehicle by which to inspire extraordinary acts of both caring and performance. 

David Lapin is CEO of Lapin International Inc., a consulting and coaching firm that helps individuals and organizations achieve strategic clarity and leadership alignment. Lapin has significant experience in healthcare. Please follow him on LinkedIn ( or Twitter (@DavidLapin).