Leadership Lessons from the Age of Covid-19

I read this article sometime last week and my original take away was the intended one: testing is important, we didn’t do it when we needed to, and we aren’t really catching up.

What stuck with me, and prompted me to go back and find the article again was Dr. Helen Y Chu.

The TL;DR is Dr. Chu was all set up to test for seasonal flu and since “a nasal swab is a nasal swab” could fairly easily test for the novel coronavirus as well. In doing so, she’d be able to get a much clearer picture of how much, if any, community spread already existed in Washington state. She asked if she could proceed. The answer was no. She asked again, still no. She decided to do it anyway. When testing uncovered the spread of the virus was already much wider than previously assumed, she was still told to stop testing– but her work lead to more extensive testing, and arguably helped us embrace social distancing more quickly than we would have otherwise.

This post isn’t about public health though, it’s about leadership. In addition to potentially saving our bacon, Dr. Chu demonstrates here some of the requirements of leadership I find most difficult.

Trust Yourself

Dr. Chu knew her lab could help and offered to do so. She was not able to convince the system that her path was the right one. She tried to work inside the system. When that failed, she took into consideration the ethical concerns her proposed path would take and determined that in this particular case, she was right and she felt an obligation to move forward with or without support. The first part of this process, proposing an idea and advocating for it, is pretty standard. But when your advocacy falls short, it’s not so simple. Sometimes your ideas are legitimately wrong or short sighted and you should let wiser minds prevail. Sometimes you are right, but your communication skills (or the communication skills of your colleagues) let you down. Sometimes you are right, and clear and for reasons of their own, others continue to disagree. Learning to trust yourself and gauge when you should press on, and when you should back off is remarkably difficult, especially if like most women and people of color you’ve been taught your ideas are only valid if someone in authority says they are.

Act in the Face of Uncertainty

Even when you have the trust step down, you can’t actually know what the impact of your actions are. Even well thought out plans can be foiled by unforeseen consequences. For example, Dr. Chu may not have found any community cases, or her test might have been invalid and she’d have added to the disinformation. When you take bold action you can never really be sure what will happen, and the bolder the action, the less sure you can be. When you do so on your own and against the advice and will of the system inside which you work, those consequences are yours alone to bear.

Accept the Consequences

This one has two parts. the first we touched above: If you are wrong, there are consequences, and there is no protection from the system or “I was just doing my job” when you act unilaterally. The other, probably harder to swallow, part is even if you are 100% right, breaking rules has consequences. You can be fired, or fined, or demoted. Your relationships may suffer. Your motives may be called into question. My unscientific opinion is this is the main reason some leaders drink, and others cry in the bathroom. Sometimes while drinking.


So what to do? In this time of crisis especially, let’s all take a breath and try to get better at balancing between holding our leaders accountable, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s accept that there is a difference between “doing the right thing,” and “doing the right thing, right” (I’m looking at you Governor DeWine) and focus our feedback on their tactics and not their character or motives. And then, once the crisis is over, let’s keep that practice up.

On a more personal level, let’s look for the areas of our lives where we can be a little more like Dr. Chu and put what is best for us all above what is best for us individually.

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