Lessons Learned Leading Through Pandemics

The chief architect of the U.S. military assistance to the 2014 Ebola Crisis offers six best practices to create and sustain team alignment, trust and agility.

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.

Sidenote: I want to be clear about my role in the Ebola Crisis of 2014. I was the Director of Operations for US Africa Command (USAFRICOM.) In that capacity, I had the honor of leading an incredible staff of planners and operators behind the scenes at a headquarters, which embodies the fault line between strategic and operational art. My job was to hold that fault line together, while supporting my Commander, as well as those in West Africa; Lieutenant General Darryl Williams and Lieutenant General Gary Volesky were on the front lines leading the heroic members of Joint Task Force United Assistance, the U.S military force deployed to provide muscle to operations already underway by the State Department’s Office of Disaster Assistant and Response. 

A Crisis Response Framework for Senior Leaders

The absolute key to effectively responding to crisis is to rapidly gain consensus and alignment in four areas that ultimately frame crisis operations at all levels: Objectives, Authorities, Resources and Risk. This may seem self-evident. However, time-and-time again, I’ve both witnessed, and been part of, crisis responses where the organization jumped into action without agreement and alignment on these fundamentals. It is easy to skip this important step when emotions are high.

Objectives

What is the overarching, attainable and agreed-upon aim of your crisis response? Gaining clarity and unifying the team on crisis objectives is extremely difficult, because all perspectives are as important as they can be divisive. Heated debate is vital to forge your objectives, and unified agreement once the dust settles is mission essential. This is leader business. During both the Ebola Outbreak and Coronavirus, business leaders and civic leaders alike have been placed on the horns of a dilemma: protect the populace from the spread of disease or put businesses and local economies at risk…including the livelihood of the populace itself.

In crisis, perspectives and objectives will always be in competition and the rift will be deep, emotional, divisive and potentially toxic. The leader must listen to debate, weigh the options, build consensus where possible, and then decide. Time is never on your side, and you won’t get the objectives perfect. They may change with time as situation awareness improves. However, everything the team does — all independent enterprise actions — must flow from the crisis objective(s). Leaders be wary; taking the time for healthy debate is good, but getting bogged down in over analysis, and feel-good consensus-building can be fatal.

Authorities, Resources and Risk

“Authorities, resources and risk.” Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, we chant these as we skip down the yellow-brick road of crisis as though they are something to be feared. In truth, these are the crucial enablers any enterprise needs to respond to crisis, act decisively, exercise agility, and adapt as the crisis evolves. Alignment is paramount; trust is foundational to alignment. When an organization has broad mutual trust, the flow between objectives, authorities, resources, and risk is natural. Broad trust begets broad authorities, broad access to resources, and shared risk (Figure 1.) Direct reports can act rapidly, exercise initiative, and innovate to accomplish crisis objectives. Resources are made available commensurate with those authorities, so teams can efficiently execute at their discretion and respective decision levels. Risk mitigation is shared and tempered by the measure of prudence that comes with well understood objectives, authorities, and resources. Agility is directly proportional to alignment and multiplied by trust.

Fundamentals Related to “Mission Command”

The Army’s philosophy of “Mission Command” is a manifestation of this alignment and was built for leading in crisis. Army leaders at every level are trained to discern and convey a clear intent (purpose, objectives, and unifying key tasks) for the teams they lead. It becomes second nature. The teams become accustomed to operating on this type of broad “Commander’s Intent” complemented by “mission-type orders” that serve to convey broad authorities and describe what must be done…not how! Subordinates, in turn, are expected to exercise equally broad initiative disciplined by the “Commander’s Intent.” Risk and risk mitigation is always a leader-to-leader discussion and must be approached from a position of trust. Leaders underwrite risks taken by subordinates when they are aligned with objectives, authorities, resources and necessary to accomplish the mission. Mission Command works in routine operations but is also vital to success in crisis. It works because its founding precept is a climate of mutual trust set by the leader.

When Alignment Goes Wrong in Crisis – 2014 Ebola Outbreak

The crucible of crises response typically demands complex organizations with widely diverse cultures to come together rapidly, unify in purpose and objective, align authorities, pool and coordinate resources, and mutually underwrite each other’s risk. There is usually little time to assimilate the team, since the cry for immediate, meaningful, and visible action is deafening. If the leader is not careful, this noise can often drown out coherent thought. World crisis brings with it a cruel magnifying glass that accentuates every imperfection. Trust is usually the first casualty in ineffective responses to crisis. Distrust spreads and paralysis grips the organization.

The U.S. response to the Ebola Crisis of 2014 is a case in point. In the beginning, the military operation was not a shining example of “Mission Command.” U.S. Africa Command stood up Joint Force Command – United Assistance (JFC-UA) to directly support the U.S. State Department, who had the overall lead for the U.S. crisis response efforts in West Africa. JFC-UA’s mission was to provide unique military capabilities in worldwide logistics for movement of equipment and supplies, engineering support to build treatment and testing facilities, training for indigenous volunteer health-care workers, and command and control to ensure the U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) – the tactical edge of the response – were receiving timely and flexible support. JFC-UA would do the heavy-lifting at the higher levels, so the DARTs (at the front-edge confronting the virus) could focus on mitigating the spread of the virus and stem the rising death toll. JFC-UA deployed over 3,000 military personnel with expertise in medical, logistics, engineering, security, and aviation.

The U.S. crisis response to Ebola in West Africa did not go well in the beginning. The primary source of friction was a clash of cultures. The military culture of “Mission Command” emphasized decentralized decision making by leaders at the tactical edge and risk managed at the lowest levels. By contrast, the U.S. State Department was more accustomed to centralized management direct from Washington where risks were calculated and managed prior to action…for good reason. Consequently, nearly every aspect of the military support had to be approved, step-by-step, by a boardroom of interagency leaders in Washington DC. Purchases of protective clothing and equipment, size and location of treatment centers, programs of instruction for healthcare workers, contracts for transportation services…everything was directed by Washington. While the centralization of decisions was status quo for State Department members of the team, it was so contrary to military culture that it was perceived as distrust. The pervasive focus on risk and centralized risk mitigation trumped agreement on, and alignment of, objectives, authorities, and resources…in that order. Washington’s view of risk became the chief consideration in the team’s actions and reinforced a perception of distrust that perverted healthy flow and alignment.

Without Trust, Risk Becomes the Organizing Principle

Another look at the crisis response framework illustrates what happens when an underlying climate of distrust allows risk to become the chief driver for alignment leading to enterprise dysfunction and poor crisis response (Figure 2.) Like before, there is an initial discussion of crisis response objectives among executive and tacit agreement in the macro sense (#1.) However, a discussion of risk obstructs solidifying the objectives and unifying the team behind them. Commitment falters. Risk and risk mitigation become the focal points of executive level discussion and, more importantly, the executive team’s guidance to the enterprise (#2.)

Leading in Ways That Promote Trust and Foster Alignment

If the leader is not vigilant in putting risk back in its place, it can quickly become the chief concern and anchors the alignment process in reverse order. Soon, the fixation on risk underpinned by lack of trust causes the team to restrict access to resources in order to remain within the risk tolerances (#3.) The authorities we provide to subordinates are, likewise, narrowed to ensure teammates remain within resource constraints and the risk calculus (#4.) Initiative is stifled and agility paralyzed. Eventually, crisis response objectives are revisited and reduced to the point of unrecognition, because they are now risk- driven objectives (#5). Risk and risk mitigation dominate boardroom discussion, permeates the leader’s guidance, and becomes the chief take-away from meetings that is conveyed to those at the tactical edge of the crisis—which chokes agility. This is known as the “Mother May I Syndrome,” and the root cause is leader fixation on risk, magnified by weak trust.

All of us have certain leader attributes that make us successful in our daily work. They represent how we are wired as human beings. While we can’t change who we are – and shouldn’t. We must adapt to the crisis environment by accentuating attributes that promote trust and suppressing those that could be perceived as signs of distrust. Building the climate of trust is Job #1 in crisis!

Below are six primary methods I’ve learned from leading teams through crisis. You will have to decide, for yourself, whether these recommended approaches will require you to have an “out of body experience” or not. I promise the benefit outweighs the discomfort of trying something new.

1. Welcome diverse thought but inspire a bias for action. In crisis, time is always in short supply and the pressure is on. The complexity of crisis also demands considering problems and solutions from multiple perspectives. Diverse organizations arrive to any crisis response with a wide array of core competencies and insights, but leaders must also be acutely aware that they also arrive with varied interests. From the outset and throughout crisis, the leader must balance inclusiveness, diversity of thought, and transparency on specific interests or agendas. It always takes more time to gain the savvy that comes from understanding diverse perspectives. A leader who can inspire a bias for action, while carefully balancing the right amount of inclusiveness, will reap huge dividends in shared understanding, innovative approaches, and building a climate of trust.

2. Look for experts; admit it’s not you. I don’t think I’ve ever led a team in crisis where I was the expert. Some who know me well will snicker at that statement. In crisis, the leader is rarely an experienced expert, and the expert is rarely an experienced leader. So, swallow the humility pill with a glass of trust and admit you are likely not the expert with all the answers. Then, find the expertise you need and take the time to invest in their development as a leader…yes, even with the crisis raging around you. You will be amazed by the positive effect it has on the team, and the innovation it will inspire during the crisis itself.

3. Communicate often and without caveat. In my experience, you can tell good organizations from bad ones by the amount and quality of chatter on the radio when they are in a firefight. In good units, the radio chatter increases as each team shares their perspective, reports progress, and helps the team gain shared understanding. The communication is disciplined and focused on the ongoing operation. The leader is engaging, actively listening, and reinforcing or refining the overall intent and the objectives that must be accomplished. The leader leaves “the how” to the various teams to figure out. The corporate leader must similarly pay attention to the quality of both internal and external communications to ensure it is focused on achieving shared understanding relevant to crisis response objectives and not fettered by specific organization agendas.

I have also learned there is no such thing as a “need to know” caveat when a team is in crisis. Everyone needs to know! As you likely have observed in your business, information is sometimes viewed as “power,” which can sometimes cause information to be held close and not shared—in crisis, in particular, leaders must compel efficient and full sharing of information and purposely set that expectation. In the Ebola Outbreak of 2014, the military’s bias for secure classified communication combined with restrictions on sharing information with non-U.S. Government entities bred distrust among teams to the point of dysfunction. A leader should aggressively look for firewalls that preclude the free flow of information within and among the team of teams and then eliminate those barriers. In fact, it might be prudent to assign someone on your team specifically to identify and eliminate communication issues.

4. Move to the action—to understand, not to take over. There is a popular saying, “When in charge, move to the sound of the guns and take charge!” In crisis, that is most certainly our natural tendency as leaders. However, imagine how your actions affect your team when you swoop in and begin directing small-unit actions because things are not going the way you envisioned at headquarters. Trust erodes immediately because the implicit message is you, the leader, do not have faith in the team. In the military, we have term called “battlefield circulation.” Leaders get out and visit units, talk with Soldiers on the ground, sometimes at the decisive point and other times at a supporting effort. Great leaders circulate to see, hear, and feel the battle in order to: (a) better understand and (b) share the burden of the fight. A 2-star general does not join a platoon patrol in Afghanistan to take over the fight, but to understand the fight so he or she can make informed decisions. Think about where you should place yourself during a crisis to best “feel” the organization, yet not overstep and undermine trust.

5. Be steady in the saddle by keeping perspective. A corollary to battlefield circulation is the leader’s responsibility to be steady in the saddle upon return. Avoid the trap of coming back from battlefield circulation and acting on impulse to issue instructions based on things you just observed when you visited the team. Be reflective of your leader’s intent and seek broader perspective by assessing progress towards the agreed-to crisis response objectives. Those objectives must be your touchstone. Develop a bias to develop your team leaders who are struggling, vice firing them and bringing in a new leader to the team. Adjust authorities and resources to better serve the tactical edge vice elevating risk management to your level. By staying calm and assessing the information you gained by visiting the team against objectives, you will keep the organization aligned.

6. Pressure needs an outlet: Give it to them—and you. Leading in crisis exacts a toll on both the leader and the led. All of us understand that but tend to forget it in the moment, because emotions are high and risks often significant. Most of us will go out of our way to take care of our team, look for signs of fissures, and provide our team physical and emotional outlets before combustion occurs. My counsel here is plan for it in advance; it demonstrates you trust your team to be human, despite asking them to be superhuman at times. And watch those who are closest to you – your inner circle. They are the most susceptible to “battle fatigue.” Most importantly, you need the same: emotional and physical outlets. As the leader, you will feel the pressure to always be present and involved in all things—you must fight this and trust your team. Find the time, take it, do not neglect it…and let others see you being disciplined about exercising that outlet, whatever it is. They will feel the freedom to do the same by way of your example. You can tell them to do this all day, but until they see you do it, they likely will keep focused on the mission without respite.

Consolidation of Gains as Crises Transition

Establishing alignment and a healthy climate of trust at the onset of any crisis is difficult. Sustaining alignment and trust during crisis transitions is doubly excruciating. This is particularly true as the crisis begins to wind down. Suddenly, and prematurely, the crisis response focuses on consolidating gains and a return to normalcy, or a new form of normalcy. Leaders must be vigilant! The varied interests and agendas of a complex team begin to surface when the focus starts to shift to post-crisis missions. The agendas of the various teams can quickly eclipse maintained focus on the broader crisis end-state objectives. The leader must be attuned to this transition point and guard against losing focus on the crisis end-state objectives as focus begins to turn back to normalcy.

As a crisis evolves, the composition of the team may change. On-boarding and off-boarding must be deliberate. Certain elements of the team, because of their core competencies, become more or less important to the crisis response than others as the crisis evolves. The unifying sense of urgency to rise to meet the crisis morphs into an urgency to get on with the routine. New team members may not feel part of the team, because they didn’t come through the crucible of hard times or because their expertise was not needed until later in the overall crisis response. Conditions become extremely ripe for a climate of distrust to resurge and pose new challenges for the leader. Understanding this dynamic and continuing to promote trust goes a long way in seeing the crisis through to the end.

Towards the end of the Ebola Outbreak of 2014, that was exactly the case. The rate of new cases subsided as did the mounting death toll. Testing programs confirmed an increasing number of cities and villages were becoming Ebola-free. JFC-UA did incredible work supporting the State Department’s efforts. However, the U.S. military was also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pressure mounted to bring home the military personnel assigned to the Ebola crisis. Organizations took their cues from the military and began to rapidly drawdown operations. There was almost no plan for transition and consolidation of gains at the Interagency level.

Leaders take note! We can get so consumed managing crisis response that we fail to provide a vision for its conclusion. Vision is leader business. The best leaders are tuned-in to the transition point and help guide the team throughout the planning for post-crisis operations. Otherwise, it will naturally occur with great haste as folks yearn to “get back to normal,” which could be detrimental to the bottom line. As always, alignment of objectives, authorities, resources and risk underpinned by trust is a good place to start.

Major General (Ret.) Bryan Watson
Major General (Ret.) Bryan Watson has over 34 years of military experience with 8 years working in multi-service and/or multi-national headquarters. As the Director of Operations in U.S. Africa Command in Germany, he managed over 14 major regional crises requiring extensive coordination with interagency and international partners prior to gaining approval by national leadership. He was the chief architect of the U.S. military assistance to the 2014 Ebola Crisis that halted the pandemic in 6 months, remained within Presidential force limits, and executed 30% under the $1.1B budget. MG Watson is practiced in international partnerships with experience in Asia, Middle East, Europe, and Africa. He is a senior faculty member of Thayer Leadership.