In mid -March of this year, when the coronavirus began shutting down schools, businesses and our normal way of life, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an interview with Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. In it, Osterholm discussed some of the frustrations of being the voice of impending change, which policy makers really didn’t want to hear, and why the message was ignored until too late.
An Early Warning
In his 2017 book “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” Osterholm sounded the alarm on coronavirus diseases’ disturbing combination — they have a relatively high mortality rate and can spread rapidly in humans. In the last 20 years, outbreaks of SARS and MERS (in the same viral family now fueling the COVID-19 pandemic) did not go global, but they were “harbingers of things to come.”
In January he said, to a group of organizations he advises, “I now am absolutely convinced this is going to be a pandemic. This will be a worldwide epidemic. We will see major transmission around the world. And, what has happened in Wuhan will happen in other places.”
“This to me was the equivalent of someone standing on a beach, a beautiful sand beach on the Gulf, beautiful blue skies, not a cloud in the sky — but 500 miles south of there is the biggest low-pressure system we’ve ever seen. We should have been telling people back then, this is going to be like a Category 5 hurricane.”
Resistance to the Message
Osterholm cites key reasons why policy makers were so slow to respond.
- A sense of invincibility. Osterholm says, “We had almost this sense of invincibility that we had a border that would not allow such infectious-disease agents to penetrate …. We, of course, know that is folly.”
- Little understanding of vulnerability. “[There has been] no real understanding of the vulnerability of this country outsourcing all of its drug supply manufacturing to places like China. And, when you don’t understand all that, or elect to neglect it, it’s easy to say another day went by and nothing happened.”
- Lack of creative imagination for possible scenarios. “People who knew health care knew [it had been] carved down to the bone for which there was no resiliency of any substantial nature, no excess capacity, no monies to stockpile large volumes of protective equipment.”
- Perceived distance. A common response was, “Well, that’s in China.” Osterholm explains that people didn’t understand these viruses don’t adhere to political boundaries — geographic areas are just another place for them to go
- Resistance to objective evaluation of risk. People were wanting to believe this was a low-risk situation, but Osterholm and others were saying, “No, no, no.”
Leadership and Strategy
Osterholm states that changing behavior in response to the pandemic requires addressing both the “heads and hearts” of people. While factual data appeals to the ‘head,’ leadership appeals to the ‘heart.’
“How are we going to start dealing with both the hearts and the heads of the citizens of this country, and for that matter the world? And, we have to understand it’s going to be more than just giving them factual data or information. This is where leadership is really key. It’s important we don’t forget this piece.”
The interview closes with this Q and A:
Q. “Are you hopeful about new potential treatments for COVID-19, such as chloroquine, that are being studied right now?”
A. “I am hopeful, but hope is not a strategy.”
For leaders of organizations, the lessons are clear. Paying attention to the external environment can be both difficult and uncomfortable. It might require reconsideration of earlier strategies or acknowledging that some things are beyond your control. You may not want to hear it.
Whether it is unprecedented environmental change, like a global pandemic, or subtle change in your industries or markets, it is important for leaders to use unbiased data in their decision-making process, assess the magnitude of change and the associated risks, evaluate the needed capabilities to respond, and muster the courage to confidently communicate and lead.
In other words, ‘hope’ is not a strategy.