Lead like an Epidemiologist
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

If you haven’t buried your head in the ground for the past eight weeks or so, you’ve experienced leadership that you don’t often see. Epidemiologists are leading many countries’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic

  • without authority
  • in a constantly shifting context, and
  • cutting through the noise to get us all to be vigilant and self-isolating.

Leaders who have to deal with the economic crisis we are living through, in parallel with the health one, can learn a great deal from how the epidemiologists are leading our politicians and us. Inspired by one of Charles Duhigg’s New Yorker articles (yet again), here is what we believe leaders can learn from epidemiologists:

They communicate artfully.

Let’s rewind a few weeks: On 15 March I was scheduled to fly to my chosen home town of Berlin, for a week of working, networking, and Liberating Structures immersions. Seeing friends and celebrating my birthday was also high up on my priorities list – when I started doubting that this trip would ever happen.

As an expat of many years now, I indulge myself with listening to my favourite daily German news programme Das war der Tag (This Was the Day). That day, the programme pointed me to a podcast with the virologist Christian Drosden. As Covid-19 was causing dramatic news in Italy, and as I had scheduled another work trip to Switzerland, I needed a sound data foundation for decision making around those trips. So I tuned in.

I was hooked from the start.

Since then I have listened to each and every one of these podcasts. What Drosden says has shaped my attitude and behaviour to the virus ever since. Equipped with his insights, I listen to the news, and respond to the political measures where I live: in Ireland. The day I was supposed to fly to Berlin – the Irish schools were already closed – we put all of our essentials into the car and decamped to the countryside where we are sticking out this virus for now. Why? Because what I heard in that podcast made it clear to me that this was not a sprint, but a marathon. We would not meet people in person for a long time, so there is no need for us to be in Dublin for now. It was not hard to make up my mind about this. Why?

I felt well informed and empowered. I trusted.

So what’s the insight in this for you as a leader? How do epidemiologists lead? My German experience is just one example, and Charles Duhigg has written a gripping tale in The New Yorker on how Seattle authorities were able to contain Covid-19 and New York authorities were not. The differences come down to the roles which scientists (without authority) and politicians (with authority) played in both cities.

Leading without authority – everyone can do it.

Our mantra is: Lead from anywhere, leadership everywhere. And to lead like an epidemiologist you don’t have to be the team leader or the CEO. You can be someone with no formal leadership role at all! Just sharing your insights, your creative ideas of how to better deal with the current home office situations, etc. and inviting others to look at the data through your perspective. Epidemiologists all around the world build credibility by being transparent about what they know and what they don’t know, and how what they share is an interpretation of TODAY’s facts. And this is where it becomes interesting if you lead with authority and responsibility for keeping your people employed, safe, and healthy. If you are the CEO, there is a lot to emulate here whilst leading through this crisis.

Rule # 1: Transparency builds trust!

The epidemiologists lead in a daily changing context which is true for any leader, especially in our time when you have no way of knowing how long the current economic emergency will last and how it is going to impact your bottom line. In other words, you cannot promise to not make anyone redundant, whilst needing everyone motivated. In fact, if you are a smart leader you invite your people to help you innovate in ways that allow you to get to the other side of the recession.

Another feature that stands out for me about how the epidemiologists are leading us through this huge collective learning experience of what it means to live and lead in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous):

They build relationship!

The epidemiologists are always present, always communicating. They show up at all press briefings. The politicians are there too, but the epidemiologists are the face of the measures. And it is consistently the same ones. By now, we seem to know them almost as well as we know our favourite movie stars.

They publicly correct their past advice.

They transparently share when they have new information which has changed their assessment of the situation and with it their advice. And they normalise that by never claiming that today’s truth is universal and everlasting. In fact, they start their prognoses with “Based on what we know TODAY…”

You’re right to be fearful of promising your workers something you cannot hold, because you just cannot know where your ship is sailing in this storm. But this does not mean that you cannot give clear advice today. You might ask yourself: What if I invite everyone to contribute to solutions for this crisis, and then I have to let some of them go soon? That’s tough, but it shouldn’t keep you from including everyone into the search for creative solutions which could prevent just that. To deal with this uncertainty, epidemiologists keep us engaged through ever changing prognosis and advice like this:

They prepare us for an ever-changing context.

One more thing that stands out for me in the Seattle example is that epidemiologists influence influential people: In Seattle, Microsoft agreed to close down its headquarters near Seattle to set an example and a signal to everyone that this virus was a big deal. So when all business and schools were asked to close, many people had already worked and schooled at home on their own accord. I don’t know the story behind it, but here in Ireland I was surprised when I heard that Google closed its office. And when Trinity college closed their lecture halls and then the whole college, it struck me as momentous. Both happened at least a week before the school closure and lockdown.

They pave the path.

An epidemiologist’s work is 50% communication and 50% data. Your work as a leader should also put a heavy percentage on communication. A last note on how leaders can learn from epidemiologists:

They lead by example.

They wear masks before it becomes mandatory for everyone. They keep their distance from others at the press conferences. And it’s unlikely that we’ll see images of a bunch of them hanging out in the park around a nice barbecue.

In response to this crisis and isolation at home with our families, many people are lonely and miss their colleagues. Others feel overwhelmed with work and family suddenly so close together and without any childcare. Many people fear loosing their jobs. And they feel many other unsettling feelings. They need space to share their current experience, including their negative emotions, in order to get access to their creativity, as Anne Taylor has recently pointed out in this excellent article. Only then can they rise to this challenge collectively, as a team, a whole organisation, a society. Adam Grant’s research shows that it is those on top who need to go first with sharing what’s going on for them. Only then can it become safe for the others.

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