Crisis Leadership in the Time of Ebola

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Emergent Risk is a Dallas based consultancy, and without getting into too much personal detail, I have reason to be on the campus of Presbyterian Hospital everyday.  Here in Dallas, we have watched the situation there unfold with a mixture of sadness and concern, but also deep empathy for those who are sick and those who have found themselves suddenly on the front lines of the battle with this serious and deadly illness.  The media presence is relentless and the criticism mounting more everyday.

Much of the criticism is deserved on a macro scale.  There was an appalling failure of leadership in the very beginning in sending the sick patient home the first time.  The second failure of leadership came when the patient WAS admitted, but proper precautions may not have been taken due to bureaucracy, a lack of clear guidance and leadership, and the absence of CDC personnel on the ground.  And the failures go on from there.  Poor public communication, poor guidance given to staff, failure to limit the exposure of staff to the affected patient.  I don’t need to tell you all about them, because you’ve all seen it in the press.

But here is what you aren’t seeing that some who are a little closer are.  Thousands of people work on that campus everyday.  They are nurses, doctors, administrators, food service workers, janitors, groundskeepers, teachers, orderlies, security personnel and others.  And thousands more are patients there.  In the background of the constantly trumpeted failures, these people are making daily sacrifices to continue to keep the trains running on time, babies delivered, sick comforted, children cared for, and taking risks to their own health to care for these deathly ill patients.  The stress level is palpable here, compounded by media that follow nurses and doctors to their homes and trumpet every bit of gossip regardless of its veracity.  And this wider story is causing panic and fear throughout the country.  It will lead to greater distrust of our government and healthcare system – some of which will result in needed introspection and efforts to fix what is broken – but much of it will simply contribute to a one dimensional public impression of the efforts that have been taken here in Dallas and elsewhere and continued criticism felt and heard by people who desperately need to hear something else.

As a professional with crisis management experience I urge the folks at Presby to use the lessons of this crisis to develop world class leadership in crisis, emergency management, and public affairs.  There is much work to be done to re-establish this institution as the respected community institution that it has long been seen as here in Dallas.  Examine every mistake under a microscope and re-write the book on how to manage health crises and epidemics, root out poor leaders and bring in world class experts to help you dig deep into the fabric of your institution to understand what may have led to these failures, be it lack of attention to detail, latent prejudice, poor education, bad communication, or something else.

As a human, a member of the general public, and a parent I urge people and the press to remember in times of crisis the real people and lives that are impacted by these events and the incredible stress and strain it puts on people.  Read the news with a grain of salt and keep perspective at the front of your mind.  Two and even 10 cases an epidemic does not make.  We all struggle not to panic sometimes when we suddenly realize how little control we actually have to protect ourselves and our loved ones from random events.  It can be unsettling and downright terrifying.  But in the midst of all this, do not forget the people on the front lines – from the first responders to the nurses to the maintenance workers who really are exposed and really are taking enormous risks to themselves and their loved ones.  These people need to be thanked, they need to be cared for, and they need to know how much we appreciate the work they do everyday.  They are stressed and worried and exhausted and they need our support.

Anyone can be critical.  Anyone can make money and a story out of someone else’s failures.  We Americans are VERY good at that.  But we can be better.  We can be supporters, we can show gratitude, we can hold our criticism in the absence of having enough information to make a judgement.   We can’t all be the incident commander or the CEO, but through being critical thinkers, problem solvers and supporters of those on the front line, we can lead by example and all be a kind of leader in times of crisis.