ACLGIM Leadership Forum

Leaders in Action

Perspectives from Emerging Leaders during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Williams ( is the director of diversity and inclusion of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Cioletti ( is an associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Irby-Johnson ( is an associate chief of Ambulatory Care Operations at the University of Michigan.

Editors’ Note: We asked three emerging leaders in General Internal Medicine about their leadership skills and development during the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

How have you kept the members of your team engaged and supported their well being during the pandemic?

Dr. Karla Williams: I have learned that the initial step to take when supporting a person or a team during a difficult season is to acknowledge that season. Acknowledging the difficulty and uncertainty that characterizes our present time as well as the thoughts and feelings that others may be experiencing allows us to empathize with our colleagues and trainees. This acknowledgment can help to alleviate the mental and emotion burdens that often times are kept hidden but affect every aspect of a person’s life, including their professional life. During this pandemic, I have been more intentional about inquiring about how colleagues and trainees are doing professionally and personally. I have been more open with sharing my own experiences. This reciprocity cultivates an environment where everyone involved can feel supported in having the license to be human, vulnerable, and honest. This environment of openness has provided opportunities to identity those who have been in need of additional meetings and other services to assist with professional development and self-care during this pandemic.

In addition to taking the time to create or reinforce an environment of openness and taking the time to do mental and emotional check ins with team members, it’s important to refocus and remind the team of the goals at hand and factors that are within our control. It has been incredibly important to remind my colleagues and trainees of the amazing contributions that we continue to make in medical education, public health and policy, research, and the lives of our patients as well as each other. It is this restoration of a sense of great purpose that will continue to serve as the anchor that will keep us grounded, inspired and hopeful for better future days.

Dr. Anne Cioletti: As an associate program director since 2012, I am familiar with the needs of a resident as one progresses through training. Yet, this year has created unforeseen stress on everyone—resident, faculty, patient. Between the pandemic, civil unrest against systemic racism, political turmoil, a crashing economy, and even more strain on the elusive work-life “balance,” well being seems to be challenged constantly and redefined with each day and with each conversation.  Creating a space to grieve the sense of normalcy, however serious or simple—a big wedding, small girls’ trip, in-person kindergarten—is necessary, but taking time to reflect on the opportunity during this time is important, too.

Dr. NiJuanna Irby-Johnson: Although our team is resilient and highly engaged, COVID-19 challenged our faculty’s physical and emotional well being.   Despite being apprehensive about the uncertainty, they were willing to take on non-traditional tasks to care for patients and assist other faculty. To help maintain their level of engagement, diminish confusion, and reduce fear, I increased the frequency and duration of our clinical council meetings, provided daily updates via email, and leveraged General Medicine clinical conferences to maintain a level of comfort through transparency. I systematically sifted and validated fluid information prior to disseminating to faculty. Finally, we addressed provider burnout and the familial stressors by allowing doctors to temporarily reduce effort and we promoted virtual care delivery models. 

How has your leadership style changed as a result of COVID-19?

Dr. Karla Williams: As an early career junior faculty member, I believe that my leadership style continues to develop. However, this pandemic has highlighted a couple of key points that I like to keep in mind and at times recite to myself. Slow down and see people more. Ask questions. Listen more. Reflect more.  Each day I try to understand others more, realizing that every person is fighting a battle that we may not be able to see at work. That battle may be affecting behaviors, motivations, and connections with others.

Dr. Anne Cioletti: As we continually recalibrate our focus towards the long game, regular communication and some sense of regularity are important—our residents are more eager to learn about general medicine during the time of COVID, but didactics are coupled with regular “chief debriefs” to decompress. During this time, balance is essential: strength with vulnerability, accountability with understanding, zoom with fresh air. And as we continue to feel stress and tension, I also try to empower residents to use their voice when frustrated—speak up and speak out as change agents during this time of turbulence.

Even in these chaotic times, my regular advice holds true: Enrich your mind. Follow your heart. Trust your gut. Take care of you.

Dr. NiJuanna Irby-Johnson: Prior to COVID-19, I purposed in my heart to be a servant leader. During the pandemic, I remained committed to that goal with the full support and regular guidance of our Division Chief I performed daily self-appraisals and intensified my focus on keeping faculty engaged in rapidly changing processes. I became more devoted to listening intently to my team’s psychological and professional needs and quickly responding to their concerns.


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