By Gerry Stryker

How to Be a Leader Worth Following

“The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” 

 Sheryl Sandberg

She’s right. Certainly, there are a number of qualities a leader needs to be successful but the ability and willingness to learn underpin them all. Leaders should be dependable, but they must first learn what dependability means to the people who look to them. A leader should have a vision, but the best leaders take the time to learn more about the kind of vision their people will embrace. A leader willing to learn is a leader with humility. And a humble leader is one worth following.

Earning that kind of trust and respect is crucial when leading in a time of crisis because the decisions you make could mean life or death. The fact is, there’s too much you don’t know in the midst of a crisis and to pretend otherwise, puts everyone at risk. When this pandemic began, we had far more questions than answers. As we learned and revised, and revised again, my leadership through these changes always comes back to five, key elements:

  1. Listen
  2. Have a plan
  3. Communicate
  4. Be transparent
  5. Create accessibility


Leading through this pandemic began with listening. I listened to the experts. As they learned, I learned. And our protocols and procedures always reflected the most up-to-date understanding of how to keep people safe.

I listened to my staff. I believe in working with, for, and alongside people so I understand decisions can’t be made in a vacuum. If we were going to screen people before they entered the building, I needed to listen to the people who would be on the front lines making it happen. How would it work? What were they worried about? How were they managing all of this?

I listened to our residents. Many of them were scared. I wanted them to know I was scared too. I wanted them to know we were doing everything in our power to keep them safe. We still are. Listening to the people you lead gives your leadership purpose.

Have a Plan 

In our profession, planning is paramount. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. As much as we tried to think ahead about how to handle the “what if there’s a pandemic” scenario, any plan we may have started with looks vastly different now than when we began. “Nimble” is a word that comes to mind. A plan is important but, in a crisis, the ability to shift and update is crucial.

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Effecting change depends on effective communication. As our protocols and procedures evolved, clear, consistent communication has been key. In the beginning, that meant meetings, meetings, and more meetings. I’m sure that sounds familiar. It meant crafting a message, refining it, and refining it again. It meant using every channel available to us. It meant learning how to use technology so we could keep our residents informed. Not just about how we keep them safe, but about what they can do to take care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Communicate x 3:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

Be Transparent

I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay. I’m not ashamed to say there’s been a lot of “learn as you go.” I knew there were times I wasn’t the right person to speak to an issue. When I didn’t know something, I sought out area experts to be a sounding board and inform our decisions. Being a leader doesn’t mean knowing everything, it means sharing what you do know and guiding with honesty, empathy, and thoughtfulness.

Create Accessibility

Here’s a word I’m sure you’ve heard a lot lately: pivot. I’d argue it’s one of the top words of 2020. We’ve all had to pivot.

At John Knox Village, one of the most important pivots was creating a way for our residents to feel connected. At this point in their lives, connection is vital and I wanted to make sure connection was easily-accessible. Whether it was a doctor’s visit or grocery shopping, we made sure they knew it was all just a click away. At a time when it can feel like the world is closing in, I knew our residents needed a way to open up.

Looking Back

What a time to be a leader. I look at where we were at the beginning of this year and how far we’ve come. I look at the way my team has grown and the way our residents have persevered. I’ve seen the fear in people’s eyes, but I’ve also watched compassion in action.

As 2020 comes to a close, I can say for certain, I’ve never been more inspired by the people who surround me. If that doesn’t make you humble, as a leader or otherwise. I don’t know what will.