The true heroes of COVID-19 and how they’re filling the void at the top

We know a lot about how leaders can launch a nimble response to a fast-moving crisis. They need to do rapid sense-making by convening the best experts to collect and digest emerging data and information. They must be frank and transparent about what they know and don’t know about the situation and communicate clearly and continuously about what they are doing to respond. The best leaders also convey empathy for what their people are experiencing, and extend care and reassurance in uncertain times.  

Most of all, leaders need to encourage and steer rapid scale innovation. Crises are fast-moving and laden with uncertainty. Decisions must often be made without full information and strategies have to be adapted to quickly changing circumstances. To mount a nimble crisis response, leaders must create the conditions to empower many people everywhere to help solve the problems at hand and push the best ideas forward to execute at scale.

In nimble organizations, the people who generate new ideas are entrepreneurial leaders, while the people who help them do what needs to be done are the enabling leaders, and the people responsible for high-level vision, strategy and resource allocation, as well as for collecting and disseminating information about the situation, are the architecting leaders. 

In the COVID-19 crisis our national architecting leaders have put us at risk. Those at the top initially understated the gravity of the situation and overstated our capacity for responding. They projected a confident sense of control, but didn’t act quickly enough to prevent widespread infection from taking hold. Only in recent days have they begun to communicate the severity of the crisis and make the hard decisions needed to slow the virus’s spread and bolster our health care system.

Contrast the U.S. response with that of Taiwan, which was predicted to have a very high “importation risk” for the virus given its proximity to China. To date, there have been only about 169 cases and two deaths. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, Taiwan set up the National Health Command Center (NHCC), which enabled early screening and quarantines of sick patients and coordination across multiple government agencies. Within five weeks, leaders took 124 actions including resource allocation, reassuring the public through education and fighting fake news, negotiating with other nations, and implementing policies for schools, childcare and economic relief — some of which our country has only recently begun to do at scale.

While we can certainly lament the failings of our architecting leaders, we are extremely fortunate that many other leadership heroes at the state and local levels have stepped in to fill the gaps.  

Dr. Helen Chu, director of the Seattle Flu Study, is one example of a courageous entrepreneurial leader.  Frustrated and fearful of the lack of available COVID-19 tests, she decided to develop her own. She began running the tests on samples that had been collected for the flu and found that the first positive case was a teenager with no travel history and no link to any known case. He was isolated. 

Chu’s entrepreneurial leadership would not have been possible without the enabling leadership of the Seattle Flu Study’s institutional review board, which ruled — against the guidance of federal agencies — it would be unethical not to test and report the results in a public health emergency.

Chu’s lab was subsequently shut down; however, her quick actions enabled Seattle officials to discover there was a good chance the virus had already been circulating for at least six weeks. Decisive architecting leadership followed: on March 11 the Gov. Inslee (D-Wash.) issued an order for one of the nation’s first radical attempts at social distancing — restricting gatherings of more than 250 people and closing schools across the region.

A day earlier, on March 10, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also took quick action to contain a hot spot cluster of cases in New Rochelle, closing schools and large gathering places. Other communities in the U.S. began to follow suit, and by Friday the 13th, large numbers of states and communities had issued social distancing recommendations.

We see this same stepping-up leadership as hospitals prepare for the onslaught of patients, sports arenas close their doors and school leaders stay up night after night to create informed plans for students and new ways of teaching virtually while ensuring a state of calm. This is a time to honor nimble, distributed leadership where people at all levels are rising up to make sense of a changing context, care for others, provide a picture of what is possible going forward and craft new solutions.  

And yet, how much better it would be if there were more enabling and architecting leaders to create aligned action across the country? They could remove obstacles to fast action and accelerate adoption of new ideas that prove successful.

The Gates Foundation just launched the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a global effort to speed the discovery and development of therapeutics for COVID-19 through multi-stakeholder collaboration. Federal authorities could launch a parallel effort for accelerating the development of social and policy innovations. For instance, they could identify leading local practices for social distancing, keeping healthcare workers safe, expanding testing and treatment capacity and providing for the needs of people in isolation. They could harness local learning to inform national policy directives and help disseminate best practices to communities with low infection rates to prevent hot spots from popping up. This is what architecting and enabling leadership could be at its best.

We honor all of the many heroes who have stepped up to lead at all levels. They have helped us avert an even more daunting future and they continue to inspire us with their courage to make hard choices and do the right thing. 

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center. Kate Isaacs, PhD, is a researcher at the MIT Leadership Center, and holds positions at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership and Dialogos International.  

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Crisis health care workers Local government Pandemic Public health Taiwan United States Virus

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