Leaderhship Lessons: Honesty, vision and team cohesion make the incredible possible

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Last fall, I deployed for what I have taken to describing as simultaneously the most difficult and the best experience of my professional life. I was part of a team of my brother and sister Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Officers that went to Liberia to be the first of four teams to staff an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) specifically for health care workers infected with the Ebola virus. The decision to stand up a facility specifically for health care workers was made to ensure that both local nationals and the international community would continue to volunteer for the difficult work in West Africa, knowing there was a process for them to be cared for if they became ill themselves with the virus (as many had already).

We arrived on site with a place to lay our heads, and a group of tents that were stood up by a fully joint task force of Air Force, Navy SeaBees, and Army Corps of Engineers. We focused on turning those tents into a fully functional ETU before accepting patients. Once that was completed, we had the honor of caring for health care workers who contracted the Ebola virus after raising their hands to care for others in these difficult circumstances. There were many highs, there were also many lows as we saw people who, like ourselves, had seen the Ebola crisis unfold and decided "I'm going to do something about that." We did so for long difficult shifts in Personal Protective Equipment which was hot, sweaty and difficult to communicate in, dealing with a highly deadly disease that deserved our respect.  I remember our team commander making the statement, "I don't fear Ebola, but I respect the heck out of it." That thought went through my head frequently, as I reminded myself I don't need to fear, but I do need to always be aware of my surroundings and every move I make working in the unit.

There are many lessons I learned about leadership during difficult times, perhaps too many to address adequately, but the below are the more important ones to me:
1) Good and accurate information reduces anxiety, but an honest response of "I don't know, but I am working as hard as I can to find out" is important as well. People know there are uncertainties in difficult missions; they don't expect their leaders to have all answers addressed at every moment. However, they do need to know their leaders understand the issues and are working on them. I have felt a draw as a leader at times to give a definitive answer to questions, even if you don't have definitive data. That may help you and others feel better in the short term, however it can have disastrous consequences long-term. I have great respect for our leaders for this mission, because they did just that. If they didn't know, they said so, and they circled back and updated us when they did.

2) Not everyone can be a decision-maker in dangerous and difficult decisions, but people need to know that their opinions and input are heard.

3) "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast." I have read that this quote has been around the military since World War I. Probably many of you have heard it before, but it became our mantra on this mission. We had a lot of work to get done, and it is always tempting to rush through tasks when they are numerous.  However, rushing causes mistakes, and in our case mistakes could have cost the lives of us or our teammates.

4) Never underestimate the power of people working together toward a common goal.
 
That last statement is the most poignant and important to me, and one I hope to never forget. I know I will never forget that feeling of having several days to open an ETU with nothing but the tent walls really ready yet. The thought creeps up of "no way we can do this..." It wasn't true. We as a team had a collective vision of where we wanted to get to, what we wanted to do for our part in helping a country and region in crisis.
 
In my opinion, that is perhaps the biggest impact of leadership in what seem like impossible circumstances, build a vision, build cohesion, and people will astonish you with what they can do. I watched our leaders do this, and I tried to do my part in the leadership team to keep that vision in place every day. It is difficult to focus on that larger vision sometimes when you are eating MREs every day, you're tired, and you miss your family, but that's what it takes to accomplish difficult missions, and in my opinion that's what we did. There were patients in our facility that did not make it, and I will never forget them. However, I have no question that our presence and perseverance made a difference for individuals, for the country of Liberia and the region of West Africa. We did so because our leaders built a vision, we had a great team, and we pulled together to accomplish something incredible.