Health and Healthcare Systems

What can this painting tell us about leadership in the COVID-19 era?

Impending doom, or a celebration of common purpose?

Impending doom, or a celebration of common purpose? Image: Public Domain

Marc Plumart
CEO Healthcare Worldwide, Sodexo
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  • Like the crews in Hokusai's masterpiece, those on the COVID-19 frontlines are today fighting towering waves.
  • But - just as the sailors can spot Mount Fuji - they do so because they have a strong sense of purpose.
  • Theirs, then, is a lesson in leadership for all.

There’s a painting hanging beside my desk. I keep it there because when I’m faced with a challenge, it gives me inspiration. Today, I look at it and think maybe I’ve kept it all these years to help me precisely in this moment.

It is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai. I cannot imagine a better depiction of our current crisis.

We are fighting rough waves at the moment. Every day, there are more challenges. For frontline employees in healthcare and senior care, especially, it is an exhausting and unrelenting battle.

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That’s how I originally understood the Great Wave when I first saw it as a teenager. The towering waves, the impending doom, the people caught in the chaos captured how I felt at that moment in my teenage life.

But that is not, as I have grown to believe, what the picture is about. Just as I have grown to believe that the current crisis is revealing more than simply the violent nature of a virus.

In Hokusai’s image, Mount Fuji stands in the distance. My father, an art lover, eventually pointed this out to me. The mountain is solid and stable, the destination for the troubled crews. They are not fighting the waves in vain. They have a purpose.

In recent weeks, we have all heard stories of profound bravery and commitment from frontline employees. At Sodexo, we have 87,000 employees working in hospitals and senior care communities around the world. I am in awe at how they face their daily challenges with caring and selflessness.


These are employees who support medical teams by providing essential services to keep hospitals clean. They nourish and comfort seniors. They keep buildings safe and the air healthy. They are not often in the spotlight, but they are certainly essential. So why do they do it?

When I listen closely to their stories and what drives them, I hear the same refrain. They feel a responsibility to care for others. They know their work is a crucial piece of the larger effort to save lives, comfort the suffering and help the vulnerable. They feel a deep purpose.

Like Hokusai before them, they are offering a masterclass in leadership.

They are teaching me, and perhaps other leaders, how much purpose in our work matters.

Today’s challenges are immense and unique. Because of the heroic efforts of all the frontline teams – from the doctors and nurses to the cleaning teams, chefs and others – we will overcome this pandemic.

The gathering storm, according to a survey of 350 senior risk professionals
The gathering storm, according to a survey of 350 senior risk professionals Image: COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications

But there are other storms gathering on the horizon. There always will be. As a leader, I am trying to listen to today’s team members to understand how to manage tomorrow’s waves. This is what I hear: In order to summon the strength to fight the waves, crews have to know there is a destination. It cannot just be wave after wave. There has to be a purpose.

Leaders tend to think it is our job to define our team’s purpose. Sometimes that may be true. Today’s situation has convinced me that sometimes we need to have the humility to accept that our teams may also see the destination before we do.

What is important isn’t who found it first, but how we can articulate it and embrace it - and how we can support each other in realizing it.

I will never look at The Great Wave again without thinking about our teams during this pandemic. In it, I will see their courage and spirit. I will remember how they muscled through every single circumstance because they knew that each one gets us closer to a saved life or a comforted person. I will always, too, be filled with gratitude for our employees who push on so courageously because they knew what might be on the other side of each wave.

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