“Just do you.” - Emily Moorhead
“Just do you.”
That may be one of the simplest, most powerful calls to action I’ve learned during my career in healthcare. Its importance didn’t really sink in, however, until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long before mask-wearing was cool, I was a committed masker. Schooled in a style of leadership that resisted vulnerability and projected steadfast assuredness, I’ve always believed that, frankly, vulnerability sucks. It’s ineffective, unbecoming, and unsafe. My brand of leadership was a stoic one: keep the mask on.
Then the coronavirus descended, and we were all confronted with a hard, fast truth: humans are communal creatures. As social distancing took its toll, people were willing to literally risk dying of a plague just to get that hit of dopamine that only connection can provide.
As we navigated the new norm of distancing, we encountered another fact: connection without authenticity is not connection at all. The familiar “I’m good” replies that used to routinely follow questions of how we’ve been no longer sufficed. In the throes of COVID, no one was good. We were not okay.
But that authentic connection requires actual vulnerability; that’s not easy. Even that word—vulnerability—often elicits feelings of powerlessness, fatigue, and uncomfortable transparency.
In the midst of COVID-19, I was swimming in this combination of loneliness, vulnerability, and in hospital leadership, when a colleague asked how I was doing. My mask slipped. “I’m stressed,” I admitted. “Really stressed.”
To my surprise, they returned the candor. Then more and more, my mask fell further, reacting to inquiries from my staff with genuine answers—including times when I didn’t have answers.
The same conversations began emerging in my own home, as well. I stopped pretending that it was normal for the sky to be falling and instead said what so many of us felt: I was scared. And me feigning strength wasn’t a testament to some innate and endless well of resilience, but a myth I believed of how leadership is “supposed” to be. It’s a myth that serves no one.
As I grappled with this revelation, my seven-year-old child implored me during a particularly challenging afternoon to “just do you.”
A lightbulb went on.
What I learned through my experiment in the cultivation of authentic, vulnerable connection was twofold. It’s contagious; when I got real, more and more of my colleagues responded likewise. We felt better and we felt more connected. This extended beyond the emotional to the practical. People were more willing to share uncertainties, ideas, and unconventional problem-solving. Those ideas were essential.
That led me to my second revelation: we can’t selectively hold back.
There is a long held perception that we should carry the best of ourselves into the workplace and hide the rest. Our “happy” is allowed to manifest, while our trepidations and insecurities are neatly compartmentalized. When we start to pick and choose the emotions we wish to share, however, we’re actually holding back the very nuance and depth that makes us great friends, empathetic colleagues, and wise leaders.
As author Paulo Coelho once wrote, “I have met so many people who, at first opportunity, try to show their very worst qualities. They hide their inner strength behind aggression and hide their fear of loneliness behind an air of independence. They do not believe in their own abilities, but are constantly trumpeting their virtues.”
When we fully show up, we bring that inner strength to the fore. We foster idea-sharing, creativity, and collaboration. We’re able to navigate complexity and disagreement. And trust no longer becomes a commodity; it’s a given. And when the going gets especially hard (for especially long periods of time), that ability to take the authenticity of our relationships for granted enables us to focus together on climbing even bigger mountains.
In recent months, I began attending Schwartz Rounds, a program of the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare. Based on the concept of Grand Rounds, these hour-long sessions feature conversations among colleagues that offer space to reflect on recent losses, clinical changes, and the “heartspace of healing.” In one of these gatherings at my own health system, a peer noted, “It’s amazing what we mask. We are strangers to each other, but we can build much deeper connections if we just allow ourselves to be.”
What would be possible if we all decided to “Just do you.” What would we reveal to each other? What aspirations might we achieve? What norms would we upend?
The myth of the stoic “masked leaders” isn’t the only falsehood I met during my foray in pandemic-era leadership. Indeed, the experience was a time to reassess so much about what matters and how we show up for those who do matter.
Adages like “titles are important.” I’d never seen so many leaders arise in so many places as when COVID hit. Or that “executive presence” is essential; tailored suits and well-manicured hands are not a proxy for compassion, leadership, and respect. Or that “work-life balance” is the holy grail; let’s not strive for balance, but for fulfilment. Sometimes, that looks like working around the clock on a professional project or welcoming your children in the office after school or unplugging for a few days with your loved ones.
At its core, leadership is about caring for everyone in our sphere of influence. That means making sure they feel safe, valued, and purposeful. In essence, leadership is creating environments to meet people’s needs.
But first, to paraphrase the all-too-familiar airline safety videos, we have to take off our own masks before helping others.
Emily S. Moorhead is a healthcare leader with advancing experience that spans diverse for-profit and non-profit networks. Her passions include providing the kind of healthcare services that bring a smile to the faces of even the sickest patients and facilitating the integration of health and wellness into everyday life. This nonfiction piece is evidence that the "soft skills" are the future of leadership.