Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

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Tolbert Nyenswah is a Senior Research Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2014 he was the head of the Liberian Incident  Management  System (IMS), leading the operational aspects of the government’s response to the Ebola epidemic. Following this, he led the establishment of Liberia’s First National Public Health Institute and became its First Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) 2017-2019.

This is a podcast of a conversation with Tolbert on his experience (interviewed by Peter Harrington and Matt Andrews). Brief summary thoughts follow, with questions for leaders facing crises today.

1.  This can be terrifying

Tolbert relates to the Covid-19 challenge facing many leaders, noting that he was asked to create the Incident Management System when the crisis had already begun  (not in preparation for it): “When you’re in a dire situation where people are in the streets, [you have] no best practice testing capacity … and you are setting up an incident management system at the same time … Before you really understand what the process is about, especially when information is weak …”

I  am sure may leaders feel like this in the face of crisis: unprepared and with much to do. In addition, Tolbert  notes, the country was in a politically fraught position: “The president was in a very, very uncomfortable position as a leader .. in fact political leadership were calling for the president’s resignation [arguing that] the government should step down.”

At 6:38 into the interview, Tolbert simply says, “It was terrifying.” If  you feel you are in the same boat … read on – terrifying things can be dealt with. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

My last blog post recounted, briefly, how Liberia changed the organizational structures it used to respond to the 2014 Ebola crisis, mid-stream through the crisis.  I wanted to tell the story primarily to demonstrate how the country ultimately adopted a flat, fast, and  flexible ‘snowflake’ like structure  (in the Incident  Management  System). Studies show that other countries and organizations adopt similar structures when facing crisis, including Korea during the MERS crisis and private corporations. In upcoming blog posts I will discuss how you might think of adopting a similar structure—especially establishing your core team, thematic focal points, and thematic teams. Even as I share these ideas, please remember that there is no one-size-fits-all crisis response organizational structure; the experience suggests that you do need to adapt your organization to the realities of your crisis  situation, but the structure that works for you will be heavily contingent on your situation.

In this post, however, I want to pause and reflect on an implicit challenge embedded in the Liberian story: how do you, as a leader, course correct when you realize you’ve made mistakes in responding to the crisis? The shift in Liberia was in ‘how’ the government was working, but you could also have shifts in ‘what’ your response looks like, ‘who’ is involved, and more. How do you, as a leader, make these changes and still maintain support and confidence of your followers?

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This is a tough topic for any public leader. But it is really important. As discussed in earlier blog posts, you will make mistakes and/or realize there are things you did not know and have to adapt around. It is impossible not to make mistakes when you face the uncertainty associated with crisis, and the many questions posed by such uncertainty—What should we do? How should we do it? When? Where? With whom? For whom? For how long?  At what cost? Your mistakes will arise because decisions are based on biased and half-informed assumptions and ways of thinking common when dealing with what Michael Osterholm calls the “fog of war” (in  relating to influenza pandemics):

“The “fog of war” describes the level of ambiguity in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term captures the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability and the capability and intent of the adversary during battle. The conceptual similarities between the fog of war and the fog of pandemic preparedness are unmistakable:

  • We really don’t understand our capability … to respond.
  • We have only a very general sense of what the pandemic influenza virus is capable of doing in terms of human illness or the social, political, and economic collateral damage.
  • We can’t predict with any certainty how the next pandemic virus will behave …”

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

I was on a call two days ago with a former student who is now deeply involved in his country’s Covid-19 crisis response. He said something like the following: “Our  government  is not set up to respond to this; there are multiple challenges coming at us all at once, requiring multiple new ideas from multiple places, fast. We just can’t mobilize people properly.”

This is a comment I am sure many leaders would echo right now. You look at your bureaucracy and wonder if and how it will be able to handle this crisis. It’s a little like reflecting on whether a ship built for good weather can really manage a storm.

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The truth is that it probably won’t.

Typical hierarchical control mechanisms seem like they give you the coordination you need in crisis (given that we often look to centralize control during such times) but we can’t control every part of the crisis through singular hierarchies, especially when crises require engagement beyond a single organization or geographic area. Also, no new crisis conforms to the pre-arranged organizational structures we have in our organizations. These structures are typically set up to deal with specific and discrete challenges—not compound problems like we face with threats like COVID-19 (where the initial threat of virus is extremely complex and has multiple knock-on effects).

This is precisely why those who have worked in crisis and disaster management suggest using new structural mechanisms to organize their response. Decentralized decision-making and coordination mechanisms are particularly advocated for use in this kind of situation (see Dutch Leonard’s video in blog post 8, the discussion of such structures in blog post 9, and the ‘part 4’ reference to such in the interview with Shruti Mehrotra in blog post 10).

What matters is that these mechanisms allow you as the leader to identify where decisions need to be made, access information (as best as possible) and ideas to make those decisions, mobilize agents to act on and implement those decisions, and constantly monitor those actions to adapt the decisions as necessary.

In blog post 9 I emphasized that there are different kinds of such mechanisms. My  work on problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) has found Marshall Ganz’s snowflake structure as an accessible, organic mechanism to help countries think about organizing themselves to address major problems (often related to crises).

In this blog I want to reflect—very briefly, but with references for your additional reflection—on how Liberia adopted a new organizational mechanism that has elements of the snowflake (being relatively flat, fast, and flexible) to coordinate and empower decisions in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic. I summarize the  story from Liberia as well as I can in this short blog, drawing particularly on two key  articles, from Princeton  University’s amazing Innovations for Successful Societies case series by Leon Schreiber and Jennifer Widner (or SW), and the Journal Health Systems Reform by  Tolbert Nyenswah, Cyrus Engineer and David Peters (or NEP). I  am not sharing this to suggest that the Liberian Incident Management System (IMS) is the best practice for you to copy or mimic. Rather, the story shows that, Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

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As we ponder how you as a leader should consider organizing your organization(s) to respond to the crisis, let’s listen to some advice from someone who has led through various crises. Below is a podcast interview with Shruti Mehrotra, who  has advised various Heads of State on effective government and statebuilding and currently helps oversee George Soros’ Economic Development Fund and Economic Advancement Program. She has worked in a variety of leadership roles on crises in contexts like Sudan and Liberia and beyond.

Here are some points from the  interview that relate to organizing yourself and your organization/team to lead through crisis.

1. Three lessons for leaders

Shruti notes that leading in these situations requires that you:

  • recognize there are no obvious, clear or easy decisions (or perfect decisions); what you need to do is get the best information you can to make  decisions (even though you know the information is imperfect),
  • need to have a process in place to discipline how you engage the information (access it, interpret it, debate it, etc.) and monitor the process (ideally from some kind of situation room), and
  • need trusted people (advisors) around you—including people with expertise in the subject matter (the technical dimensions)—to help make the decisions.

As she says: “there will  be debate, [but] as a decision maker and a decision making team, one has to go through that debate process and come up with a conclusion that is trusted and can be communicated to foster trust with the population about choices that were taken.”

An emergent idea, then: It is important to think about the information sources you  have, the process  you have for interrogating information, and the team you have doing this  work (“your trusted people” and the “technical experts”).

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

In my last post, I argued that you should prepare to work differently. In this blog  I will offer ideas on doing that. I am informed by my BSC team’s work with countries employing PDIA (problem driven iterative adaptation) in the face of problems (some crises) and the work of people like Dutch Leonard (whose video was included in the last post).

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Let me start with an observation of the organizing structures typical to public organizations (school systems, local governments, national departments, and more). Most of these organizations tend to be bureaucratic hierarchies; with a defined mission determined (or managed) by the people at the top, and pursued through formal processes by people in highly specified jobs. Using words from the last blog, the authorization mechanisms, acceptance requirements, ability needs, and mobilization mechanisms are all set in place. My guess is your organization looks a little like this?

But there are variations of such structure:

  • Some bureaucracies are stand-alone structures like the Figure 1 below. A single school might be an example of this. The  principal sits at the top and everything is led by her/him.
  • Other organizations are bigger hierarchies with multiple embedded hierarchies, as in Figure 2 below. A school district might be an example. The District commissioner leads a system in which other people lead schools B, C, and D. The leadership and coordination tasks are now split across a group.
  • Other organizations are distributed hierarchies (as in diagram 3 below). A state or national government is an example. One hierarchy (A) is the education department. Another (B) is the health, another (C) is the public works department, etc. In these systems, leadership again is about a group.

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Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

Public Leadership Through Crisis 8: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

I have spent 7 posts discussing leadership challenges in crisis for the leader herself or himself; what the individual needs to get ready and steady to help people through crises. In this post I am going to start pivoting to thinking about your organizational capability.

I am hoping that a wide group of people find these blogs useful, but I am writing with a particular group in mind: those responsible for mobilizing a public response (of any kind, at a school, in a sector, in a town, or a nation) in low  capability settings (especially the developing world) where there has often  been a tendency to look to outsiders for help in crises. The advice I offer is not perfect in any way, and will not always travel across contexts, and I do encourage  you to consider other resources and ideas when acting (see our seventh post for ideas), but I—and my team—are offering what we can, given our capabilities, and I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here (I think these are good  ideas and they can be helpful, even if more work could make them better—remember this is a key to remember from post 3).

I have been in touch with a number of leaders faced with the COVID-19 pandemic in the last week or so, and I sense real concern that their organizations and systems do not have the capabilities needed to weather the current storm. In this blog I  want  to agree, but also encourage you: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently, with what you have.

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So, you are asking if you have the capability to address this crisis. The answer from me is that you do not. No one does.  But you probably have more latent capability than you know, and can deal with the crisis better than you think if you mobilize it in new ways. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 8: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently

Public Leadership Through Crisis 7: Additional resources for you

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

In today’s post I will be locating information, examples, and more to assist those leading through crisis. Please send suggestions and additions. I am sure it will be a constantly changing post.

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Are you looking for ideas on  leadership in this storm?

Leading through crisis, and Covid-19 in particular

This online interview with my colleague Dutch Leonard on leading through crisis is fantastic.

This online page at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies at  Stanford is very good.

This is a page with short ideas on managing the current crisis from a selection of colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This post by Tomas Pueyo on Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance is excellent and offers good ideas on actual responses based on what other countries are doing.

This pdf on Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis edited by Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro is also useful.

This post on ELGL by Maggie Jones on Finding Place in COVID-19 and learning about ourselves and each other.

This is a good effort to get lessons from CEOs in the Asia-Pacific region about dealing with coronavirus.

Personal care for yourself and those close to you (family or your team)

This is a great essay by Danny Kaufmann at Brookings, on Caremongering in the time of Coronavrius: Random Acts of Kindness and Online Enrichment.

How to Lead and communicate virtually

A comment on my previous post about communication asked if we had anything to  say about communicating—and  leading—virtually. A great and important topic, especially now. If  you and your team are remote, how do you communicate?

Here are some sources offered by friends and colleagues:

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 7: Additional resources for you