Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic: “Fixes That Fail”

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Political Leaders Often Unwittingly Unleash “Fixes That Fail”

Like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a real-time case study in leadership best (and worst) practices. Consequently, leaders at all levels have an opportunity to learn valuable lessons during this global crisis to better prepare themselves for future crises.

What follows is the second in a series of articles highlighting those leadership lessons. The first article focused on accurately identifying which of the three types of problems leaders face. This one is a direct follow up and examines the serious consequences of leaders misidentifying the type of problem they’re dealing with and subsequently creating more (and potentially worse) problems with their solutions — a phenomenon called “Fixes That Fail.”

“Fixes That Fail” occur when a complex problem (Type II or Type III) cries out for well-thought-out, long-term solutions. However, leaders mistakenly view it as a simple Type I problem (Clear Problem/Clear Solution) and quickly implement a fix.

This quick fix may alleviate the symptom(s) — but not the actual problem. Furthermore, the fix creates unintended consequences that cause the real problem to either return to its previous level or (more likely) make it worse. The fix also creates numerous OTHER problems due to the unintended consequences, and, often, these problems turn out to be worse than the original problem.

“Fixes That Fail” is one of the biggest — and potentially disastrous — decision-making mistakes I see leaders in my client organizations make. And my government clients are especially susceptible to it because politicians always want their constituents to think they’re doing something about the serious problems facing their communities. So, it doesn’t surprise me that politicians at all levels of government are making this crucial mistake in their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

When it became obvious that the coronavirus was a serious threat, most politicians viewed it from a simple Type I perspective:

1. Our clear problem is a pandemic caused by a virus for which we have no vaccine and no cure. This is a serious health and healthcare crisis.

2. Therefore, our clear solution is to take whatever steps necessary to slow the spread of the virus to keep it from overwhelming our healthcare system (“Flattening the Curve”).

3. We will measure the success of our solution by how well we slow the spread of the virus and limit hospitalizations and mortality rates.

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is a health and healthcare crisis. But it is not JUST a health and healthcare crisis. It also is a world-wide economic crisis and a “psychological & social” crisis. This third crisis, which currently may be the most overlooked of the three, is the emotional response of individuals and entire societies to the pandemic. It includes how well individuals deal with long-term social-distancing tactics and how much government control people in a free society are willing to accept.

These two other crises are why both the WHO and CDC pandemic playbooks caution leaders to seriously consider the economic and societal effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions (mass quarantines, travel restrictions, and school & business closures) BEFORE implementing them. Even as the world’s foremost health organizations, they realize epidemics and pandemics are not just health crises.

But our political leaders initially viewed the COVID-19 as such. And as the “Fixes That Fail” methodology predicts, this myopic view led them to take actions that are creating myriad unintended consequences, which easily could make their “cures” worse than the disease (literally, in this case).

These unintended consequences include:

· The loss of 22 million American jobs in just four weeks, many of which will never come back as businesses declare bankruptcy or simply choose not to reopen;

· Ballooning local, state, and federal budget deficits due to the combination of lost tax revenues and massive government-aid packages designed to counter the economic unintended consequences of government-imposed social-distancing measures;

· A significant increase in calls to domestic-violence and mental-health hotlines as people struggle under long-term shelter-in-place orders;

· Little progress on creating “herd immunity” against the virus, meaning that a second (and maybe third, fourth, fifth…) wave of the virus is inevitable once social-distancing measures are relaxed; and

· Concerns that chronic health conditions (diabetes, cancer, cardiac issues…) that currently are going untreated due to governments deeming those treatments as “non-essential” will lead to an explosion of non-virus-related health deaths well into 2021.

Our political leaders still can minimize the “Fixes That Fail” they’ve already created by taking a more systemic, long-term approach to their decision making and policy implementation moving forward. Specifically, they can implement some of the tactics that Singapore and South Korea used to limit the pandemic’s effects on their nations.

In Singapore, the government did cancel mass gatherings right away. But instead of immediately shutting down schools, businesses, and restaurants, they temperature screened people before allowing them to enter these buildings. Health authorities also developed transmission chains, tracking down people who had been in contact with a known case and ordering them into home quarantine. These people were then checked daily to see if they developed a fever.

This development of transmission chains is especially important for the United States moving forward. Without a plan to test, track, and monitor potentially infected individuals after the mass quarantines are lifted, we’ll experience a second surge of cases. And a subsequent outbreak would minimize, if not outright cancel, the impact of the social-distancing measures we’ve endured.

Hong Kong is already experiencing this. After initially stopping the virus’ spread, officials did not have a strong enough transmission-chains plan in place. Consequently, citizens returning home brought the virus back with them and initiated a new outbreak.

South Korea also has been applauded for implementing actions that were paradoxically less extreme but more effective than those implemented by other nations. These included immediate mass testing and then mandated, targeted quarantines — not mass quarantines.

Our leaders are facing some difficult decisions in the days, and certainly no longer than weeks, ahead. Because the one thing almost every health expert, politician, and economist agree upon is that the current situation is unsustainable without creating a world-wide depression or redefining what it means to live in a free society.

That means at some point in the near future, leaders are going to be forced to adopt a more systemic, long-term approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the only way that can happen is by accepting that no matter what they do, people (and perhaps a lot of them) are going to continue to die from the virus until we can develop a vaccine and/or cure for it.

While that is a sobering proposition to accept, it is one they ultimately will have to accept. Because finding solutions that address all three crises (health & healthcare, economic, and psychological & social) is the only long-term path forward.

For those arguing that accepting a certain amount of deaths is contradictory to the Hippocratic oath or even humanity in general, I’ll end this article with a thought from a world-renowned medical expert. In the epilogue to his powerful work Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande concludes:

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well- being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way.”

While Dr. Gawande was talking about individuals at the micro level, our leaders would do well to think about his advice at the macro level — if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, then for a future one. For what is the sense of saving a certain number of lives during a viral pandemic if our actions leave the survivors with worldwide pandemics of unemployment, homelessness, hunger, personal and business bankruptcies, and trillions of dollars of debt to deal with for decades to come?

President of Marathon Leadership, LLC — an organizational and leadership consulting firm based in Thornton, CO. Learn more at http://marathonleadership.com/

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