Emerging Leaders have the confidence and humility to say “I don’t know” in a crisis

20 May 2020 | Burlington, Ontario
Contributed by Laura J. Smith

Alumni share their thoughts on starting their medical career and how it has been impacted during the pandemic

The future of Canadian healthcare depends on a new generation of health leaders who can think creatively and disrupt the status quo. At the Health Leadership Academy, our programs equip participants with the critical leadership and creative problem-solving skills vital to effect change and achieve success in a complex health system.

What does it mean to be a young professional in the real world of healthcare during a crisis?

At a recent McMaster Collaboratorium webinar, we spoke with two Emerging Leader alumni to explore how new medical residents can play a leadership role in a changing healthcare landscape.

For Rachel Bierbrier, Dermatology Medical Resident at McGill University, leadership is a cornerstone in medical practice. As a medical student she actively sought leadership opportunities and experiences but was surprised to discover that leadership is not only a natural ability, but can be taught, learned, and practiced.

“Starting at a new place where I was at the beginning stages of my career as a doctor, I really had to look at myself as a leader and see what I could contribute from an early stage in my training,” says Bierbrier. “For me the leadership skills that emerged in the first few months of my training were the ability to adapt, to adjust, and to be reflective on my skills in what I can bring despite my lack of experience.”

She credits the late Dr. Del Harnish of McMaster and the Health leadership Academy for enabling her to learn leadership skills that had direct application for medicine. She also appreciates the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) focus on design thinking which helped her to understand that it is not just creative people who can solve problems creatively.

“I think another big piece for me in terms of leadership starting out in my medical career was the importance of understanding that I have so much to learn,” says Bierbrier. “And being humble, being willing and open to speak to people, and to have mentors to help guide you through the different challenges and opportunities that emerge as I’m pursuing my leadership and my future career.”

Adam Eqbal, Cardiac Surgery Medical Resident at McMaster University, shares his experience as a first-year resident. “I was quite anxious going into a new position. The thing about healthcare there really is a bit of a hierarchical structure,” explains Eqbal. “The question becomes how can you incorporate leadership skills into your day-to-day life when you are sort of starting at the bottom?”

For new residents, Eqbal says it is important to cultivate good relationships, and to find every opportunity to learn from team members. Building trust is also key, but especially important in a crisis, he added. When members of a team trust and understand each other, they can make decisions quickly; however, it is not always possible to work with those you know or trust in a crisis, and thus adaptability is also important.

How can a new resident, or anyone in the early stages of their career, demonstrate adaptability and flexibility? A strong foundation in knowledge, principles and skills is what makes Eqbal adaptable in a crisis. When you can fall back on your skills and knowledge, he said, “very little can stray you from your course.” For Bierbrier, the key is being comfortable with uncertainty and having the confidence and humility to say: “I don’t know.” In the current climate where change is constant and rapid, “I don’t know, but I will do my best to find the answer” is often the best answer, she concluded.

Looking to the future, Bierbrier and Eqbal believe there will be challenges and opportunities for young healthcare leaders in this new world of change. Eqbal noted that the pandemic has forced rapid integration of technology into healthcare systems. “I think we’re coming from a digitally driven era from day one,” explains Eqbal. “Young leaders have the opportunity to be the flag bearers for the integration of technology and the future provision of care.”

Both alumni agree the initiative and energy created during this pandemic will be maintained or continued into the future. Eqbal predicted that it will be a slow transition to “normal” and that it may be difficult to recognize the shift if and when it happens. He hopes that this experience will have a long-lasting impact on how we respond to crisis and pandemics more specifically.

Asked to consider the future, Bierbrier quipped that whatever she says today probably will not apply tomorrow. With everything evolving so quickly, she tries to focus on the positives and to see opportunities in the challenges. The crisis has brought together sectors who might not usually interact or collaborate on COVID-19-related problems, which bodes well for future innovation.

“I think right now is the perfect opportunity for anyone who felt they never had a spot at the table to step up,” says Bierbrier. “The current state of things is really giving a voice of leadership to individuals that may not have had that voice before, and I really hope that legacy continues beyond the COVID pandemic.”

In addition to the crisis giving leadership and voice to many who have not had that before, Bierbrier noted a culture shift in recognizing and appreciating the vital role allied health care workers and essential healthcare workers outside the hospital play within the broader healthcare system. Similarly, the pandemic has prompted a scrutiny and focus on healthcare in non-hospital settings, long-term care facilities, and patients outside the urban centres for example. All of these trends, Bierbrier hopes, continue beyond the pandemic, and make a lasting impact on the Canadian healthcare system.

Emerging Leaders play an important role in the dramatic changes occurring in healthcare today. Both alumni recognize everyone has leadership abilities, different points of view, and everyone can contribute, regardless of their role.

“Being a young, new professional entering a workspace which has a well-established structure you’re not often regarded as a leader, but you can still use leadership skills and you can be a fresh set of eyes on an otherwise traditional way of doing things to suggest change,” says Eqbal. “Crisis doesn’t build character it reveals it.”

If there was just one piece of advice Bierbrier could impart to future health leaders it is “the importance of resiliency, the importance of having humility to say that you don’t know, but also the passion and the fire to say that I’m going to find out.”


About the Health Leadership Academy

The Health Leadership Academy offers leadership programs for aspiring and current health leaders that focuses on learning, and unlearning, the necessary skills to navigate and adapt to our ever-changing health environment.

Emerging Leaders is a one-week intensive leadership foundations program for students and young professionals looking to gain the skills to lead across the health system.

Pathfinder is an eight-week personalized leadership development program to build the leadership capabilities of health leaders.

Shift is a three-month virtual, experiential, project-based program which introduces conceptual and practical approaches to design thinking for health leadership.

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