“I never got to that point where by I didn’t have enough hope to keep on going. This particular crisis was somewhat like playing a game of solitaire. You pick up a card and if you can put it someplace, the game keeps on going. So if you pick up a card which is a crisis, and you can solve the crisis somehow, the game keeps going. We never got to the point where we picked up a crisis and there was no solution and the game was over.” – James Lovell, in an interview with PBS
There’s a reason that the former NASA astronaut and retired US Navy captain has earned so many accolades and been featured as a motivational speaker, and it’s not just because of his role in safely returning himself and his crew to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the moon during the Apollo 13 mission. It’s because Lovell was given a golden opportunity to shine as a leader, and he ran with it. During that ill-fated voyage, both his crew and mission control needed someone who could stay calm under intense pressure and steer the ship — which is exactly what he did.
For the Apollo 13 crew, the mission was going according to plan, but then everything changed when a damaged heater coil caused an oxygen tank to burst, which set off of a chain of events that put the lives of all three astronauts on board at serious risk. Lovell had to act fast — but more importantly, he had to put on a brave face so that those who were counting on him didn’t panic.
In some ways, it’s not all that different from the pressure that today’s CIOs face. Clearly there are some differences — for instance, lives aren’t being put in immediate danger (some might argue with this, as IT becomes ever more intertwined with direct clinical care), but the underlying issue is the same. In Lovell’s case, if it was merely one oxygen tank being out of commission, the problem would’ve been much more manageable. But the subsequent events — including limited power, loss of cabin heat, and dangerously high carbon dioxide levels — created a perfect storm.
Similarly, for CIOs, it would be manageable if you just had to deal with a few issues, like a major implementation, mobile device policies, and various upgrades. But when you throw in Meaningful Use, HIEs, ACOs, ICD-10 and everything else, it can become extremely overwhelming — both for you and your staff. But rather than giving in to the pressures, this is where a true leader needs to put the team on his or her shoulder and find a way out, according to John Bosco, CIO at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.
And part of that leadership means not showing how overwhelmed or anxious you might be. In a recent interview, Bosco took issue with the mood among CIOs at a recent conference — it was grim, to put it mildly. “There were people saying, ‘I didn’t sign up for this,’ ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to handle this,’ and all these kinds of things,” he said. “And that’s a recipe for failure right there.”
Now, more than ever, CIOs need to stand strong, he says. “You’ve got to have a very positive attitude and project that out to all of your staff. A positive attitude really goes a long way to say, ‘I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know exactly how everything is going to unfold, but it’s going to work out, and somehow we’re going to pull through it. We’re going to do a great job and everybody just has to believe that.’ Part of my job is to just keep them productive… and keep them believing.”
However, this doesn’t mean that CIOs should act like robots or keep their feelings bottled up. In fact, it can be very helpful to vent your frustrations to colleagues about issues like staff turnover and find out how they’re dealing with it. But when you’re around your staff, put on a brave face, even if you’re feeling the strain, he advises. Because if you panic, they’ll panic.
Keep your head up, work through one crisis at a time, and remember — if you can put the card somewhere, the game keeps on going.