What this doctor learned about leadership from COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Dr. Angela Dunn has learned a lot about leadership and healing

As the former state epidemiologist of Utah, Dr. Angela Dunn, 40, found herself at the helm of informing the public about the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

While many raved about her concise and jargon-free media briefings (Gov. Spencer Cox wore an “I (Heart) Dr. Dunn” t-shirt at her last media briefing), Dunn also faced many naysayers and even threats. But through it all, she continued to emphasize information over politics.

In her new position as the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, she reflects on what she’s learned about communication, leadership and bringing people together — especially when it’s tough. 

As told to Benoît Morenne

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When I was young, my father would chastise me when I ended a question with that kind of uptick where you’re ending every statement as if you’re asking a question. My parents prioritized clear communication. I had to say “Dunn’s residence, Angela speaking” every time I answered the phone. It probably was the start of my understanding that the clearer you can really capture what it is you want, the more that sets you on the right path. After going into the medical field, I learned how to break down very complex ideas into simple terms so that my individual patients could understand them.

I have weaknesses, of course. One of the key attributes of a true leader is understanding their own weaknesses and gaps and then filling their leadership team with individuals who fill their own gaps and weaknesses. It takes a lot of humility for a leader to say, “Yeah, I’m the executive director. But you know what? I am not awesome.” We as leaders should never seek people who just fluff our feathers. We should seek out people who are open enough to disagree with us in a respectful manner.

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I value a true team approach where everybody’s input is sought after and valued, no matter where they fit into the organization — from front desk staff to deputy director. To really serve the community in the way we want, it’s important that everybody on the team has a voice for how that will happen. If you want an organization that thrives on innovation, loyalty and consistency, it requires making sure that everybody is proud of the way the organization is going.

“Leadership” is not a job title. Leadership is how you present yourself and act within your own circles. The best thing we can do in this trying time is to release judgment, listen to those who are around us and try to understand their needs and what they’re saying. If we want to be a unifying force within our own social networks, it’s going to take someone standing up and saying, “Let’s see where they’re coming from.” That could go a long way. 

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.