Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders have had to rely on one essential trait to weather the storm: resilience. In no other industry has this skill been more crucial than in health care, and these leaders have a lot to teach the rest of us about remaining strong in the face of hardship.

Since the start of the crisis, I have joined many of my colleagues in providing leadership coaching services pro bono to health care leaders around the country. One of the leaders I have been working with is the head of a hospital nursing unit. The health care workers in her hospital form a very close-knit team. They care for one another, check in on each other frequently, and feel like family.

The team shares their unique burdens with one another so that they can draw on each other for strength. The nursing unit’s leader, in turn, feels that she must remain strong for her team. She carries the same stress, sadness, guilt, and fear as her colleagues, but has no one to do for her what she does for her team.

During one of our first sessions together, I asked her, “How can I help?”

“I just want to know what more I can do, to support others,” she replied.

I asked her what she does to take care of herself. She couldn’t answer the question.

As leaders move through a crisis, it is as if they are climbing a hill while carrying a backpack. As they climb, they fill their backpack with the emotions of the people they lead. These emotions, heavy, like rocks, ease the burden for those who unload them, but make the backpack heavier and heavier, eventually breaking the back of the person who wears it.

I have been collaborating with health care leaders to identify strategies they can use to increase their personal resilience. In the midst of crisis, these leaders may not be able to take off the backpack, but they can learn how to lessen its weight–and fortify their backs.

These strategies, while distilled from my work with health care leaders, apply to anyone who would like to build their personal resilience so they can be a positive force for their companies.

Give yourself permission to let go.

As leaders, we must accept there are things we cannot control and problems we cannot solve. Be intentional and identify what you can let go of. Think to yourself, “I’m going to put this backpack down, unload some of these rocks, and let them go. I need to lighten my load so I can continue to climb this hill.”

Lead with your head, heart, and gut.

When we lead with our head, we use logic and reasoning: What can I do more of? How can I fix these problems? When we use our hearts, we lead with emotion. We empathize with others’ pain and leverage our emotional connection to what we do and the people we lead.

Most leaders operate from the head and heart but ignore the gut. I have asked many of these exhausted, overwhelmed health care leaders, “What does your gut tell you to do? If you were your own adviser, what would you say?” Many have sighed deeply and said, “My gut tells me I need to treat myself with kindness. I need to care for myself so I can care for others.”

Lead with your whole being–head, heart, and gut–and you’ll find more balance in your decisions–and have less chance of neglecting yourself along the way.

Rethink “strength.”

The nursing team mentioned earlier finds the strength to care for their patients by relying on one another for emotional support. The leader, however, does not feel she is able to show that same kind of vulnerability. Many leaders, in fact, feel that showing any kind of emotion is not “strength.”

I encourage leaders like you to look at strength from another perspective. Strength also means authenticity. When you let your guard down, ask for help, and show vulnerability, you give others permission to do the same. You help create an environment of psychological safety, one that says, “We’re all in this together, and we will support one another through it.” What’s more, your team wants you to be able to lead–and they know you can’t do that if you don’t take care of your own emotional health.

Whether we want to be a positive force for our clients, our teams, our families, or our communities, leadership during a crisis requires great personal resilience. Find it by letting go of what you cannot control, leading with your whole being, and showing strength through vulnerability.

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