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?
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 …”