Understand how we got here — and how to move forward.

Our Take

The Executive’s Role in Fostering Resilient, Adaptive Leaders

15 Minute Read

Covid-19 illuminated the fact that the current way we are asking our health care leaders to operate is not sustainable. While they have demonstrated tremendous resilience in response to the pandemic, many are experiencing burnout or leaving health care altogether. Moreover, leaders must continue to operate in an increasingly uncertain and volatile environment well beyond the end of the pandemic. This reality requires adaptive leaders who practice and model self-awareness and vulnerability, prioritize taking time away to restore themselves, and take risks to lead their teams through uncertainty.

Read on for three strategies executives should take to foster an environment that supports and reinforces these leadership behaviors.


The conventional wisdom

Covid-19 placed an extraordinary level of stress on the health care workforce. Since the beginning of the pandemic, organizations were rightly concerned about the well-being of their staff amid unprecedented trauma.

Managers and directors bore an additional burden, charged with supporting their team’s resilience as well as their own. For example, leaders were expected to stay calm under pressure, strive for and inspire high performance, and prioritize their team at all times. These leadership behaviors help leaders protect their team but ultimately put them at risk for burnout.

As the pandemic wore on and leaders became increasingly overwhelmed, we saw a renewed focus on leadership resilience and how to cultivate it. Many organizations looked to additional training to bolster leaders’ personal resilience, such as workshops, leadership retreats, mindfulness training, and individual coaching sessions.


Our take

Individual interventions, such as training and coaching sessions, can be effective in cultivating resilient leaders. However, these interventions primarily treat the symptom of burnout. That is, they help leaders bounce back from stressful situations without addressing the underlying systems that contribute to burnout. This places the onus on the individual leader to become more resilient in the face of adversity. Instead, these individual interventions must be paired with an organizational approach that addresses the environment that leaders are operating within.

The upward trend in burnout certainly didn’t start with Covid-19. Rather, the pandemic amplified the conditions of a system that was already untenable and unsustainable for leaders. Thus, the ambition at hand is greater than helping leaders recover from the stress and trauma of Covid-19. Now is the time for executive teams to critically examine the aspects of our current culture that continue to undermine leaders’ resilience and ability to adapt. Through research interviews with health care leaders from around the world, we identified three elements of organizational culture that exacerbated leader burnout during the pandemic. These elements are summarized in the table below.

The ultimate pitfall with the way we look at well-being is that we only consider the need to boost resilience and not the need to fix the system. What we end up signaling to staff is that we’re trying to boost your resilience so that we can continue to treat you badly.

- HR Director

The reality is that leaders will need to continue operating in an increasingly uncertain and volatile environment well beyond the end of the pandemic. This will require adaptive leaders who practice and model self-awareness and vulnerability, prioritize taking time away to restore themselves, and take risks to lead their teams through uncertainty. This report details three organizational strategies to cultivate an environment that supports and reinforces these leadership behaviors.

If organizations fail to address these environmental factors, we risk further disengaging or burning out our leaders, and/or losing them to other organizations and industries. This will undoubtedly have ripple effects across the entire workforce, as we can’t expect disengaged or burned out leaders to effectively support their teams.


Three strategies to cultivate sustainable leadership behaviors

To cultivate an environment that supports and reinforces these aspirational leadership behaviors, executives should pursue three strategies listed below. Within each strategy, we offer examples of organizations that are making progress in these areas.


  • Strategy

    Center leaders’ emotional well-being so they have capacity to support their teams

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  • Strategy

    Protect time away from day-to-day operations for leaders to regain perspective

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  • Strategy

    Make it safe for leaders to lead through uncertainty

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Parting thoughts

Changing leadership norms and behaviors will take more than just tactics and strategies. These strategies must be paired with ongoing conversations between the entire executive team that address the environment that leaders are operating within. To get the conversation started, we’ve provided several discussion prompts below to bring back to your executive team.

The good news is that these aspirational leadership norms and behaviors most likely already exist in areas of your organization. Start by reflecting on the aspirational leadership norms and behaviors presented in the table above.

  1. Where have you seen these aspirational norms and behaviors in practice?
  2. What impact did it have?

Then, reflect on how your organization can start moving toward these aspirational leadership norms and behaviors. Consider:

  1. If these aspirational behaviors were to become the norm, what then would be possible in our organization?
  2. What is hardest about moving toward these aspirations?
  3. What is the next right thing for you to do to help your organization move toward these aspirations?

For additional support facilitating this conversation with your executive team, please email


Abelson R, “Doctors Are Calling It Quits Under Stress of the Pandemic,” New York Times, November 15, 2020.

Gandhi V, “As COVID-19 Continues, Employees Are Feeling Less Prepared,” Gallup, July 2, 2020.

Lagasse J, “Healthcare workers experiencing burnout, stress due to COVID-19 pandemic,” Healthcare Finance, December 8, 2020.

Heifetz R, et al., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Boamah SA, et al., “Factors influencing new graduate nurse burnout development,” May 2017.

Brown, B, Dare to Lead, New York: Random House, 2018.

Gilar-Corbi, R et al.,“Can emotional intelligence be improved? A randomized experimental study of a business-oriented EI training program for senior managers,” PloS, October 2019.

Hendel, Hilary, “Ignoring Your Emotions is Bad for Your Health. Here’s What to Do About It,” TIME, February 2018. 

Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being,” National Academies Press (US), October 2019.

Pink, Daniel H, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.

Edmondson AC, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2018.

Edmondson AC and Lei Z, “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, March 2014.

Advisory Board interviews and analysis.

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