Lessons Learned Leading Through Pandemics
By Major General (Retired) Bryan Watson, Tuesday, February 16, 2021
In 2014, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa spread at an exponential rate and so did the death toll. Some nations declared states of emergency as healthcare systems collapsed and societies stepped to the brink of civil unrest. Other nations rushed to muster medical expertise and supplies to assist the afflicted regions while preparing for the disease to spread to their own shores. In the United States, the President ordered the Department of Defense to deploy over 3000 military personnel to aid in logistics, engineering, healthcare training, and security to the federal response effort. Suddenly, America’s eyes were transfixed by the intense 24-hour media coverage of the first U.S. citizen to become infected. The country watched with horror as the media tracked every movement of the first patient to the hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Does this sound familiar to current day?
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and the Coronavirus pandemic globally in 2020-2021 have distinct parallels in how the two crises unfolded, nations responded, complex ad-hoc teams were created in response, and senior leaders must leverage different skills to navigate complexity of crisis response. This article uses the 2014 Ebola Outbreak as a backdrop to explore six best practices for getting extremely complex organizations with diverse cultures to focus, as an enterprise, on supporting teams at the tactical edge of crisis. These best practices are timeless and will assist business executives to lead equally complex teams through today’s Covid-19 crisis…and the next crisis after that.
This article begins by outlining a crisis response framework that helps leaders understand and achieve the alignment that complex organizations need to become agile in crisis. This crisis response framework mirrors, and is supported by, the U.S. Army’s Mission Command leadership philosophy, in which a pervasive climate of trust is fundamental to achieving alignment and agility. To make the point, we will explore how the absence of trust, or distrust, causes things to unravel, using the 2014 Ebola Outbreak as an example. This article concludes with Six Best Practices that leaders can implement to demonstrate trust in very real ways to help create and sustain alignment and agility in times of crisis.