Adaptive Leadership and Covid-19 | A Report from the Field

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Sometimes the universe conspires to put you in the right place at the right time. So it was in the Spring of 2020 for team members at Adaptive Change Advisors (ACA), which is the world’s foremost mission-based Adaptive Leadership development organization.

As the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the team had just begun a leadership program for over 200 immunization professionals across Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The program, a 6-week virtual series funded by the Gates Foundation, was designed to support immunization professionals to tackle the ‘adaptive challenge’ of last-mile vaccination coverage and vaccine hesitancy. It quickly became clear that the challenges facing immunization professionals due to the pandemic required the ability to lead through uncertainty like never before— and to democratize leadership at hyper-local levels within communities.

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Said one participant, “I was tasked to coordinate COVID-19 activities. Being young and without position working with “bigger” officials, I’m challenged to confront hard decisions and communicate sensitive information to stakeholders. Due to the expertise I got from this course, I am breaking the chain of COVID-19 transmission among health workers and the public — it’s been so far successful, though challenging.”

Participants came to deeply appreciate leadership as the act of mobilizing people to achieved shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty, which is a patently different orientation to leadership than the prevalent command-and-control style in many countries. “We had a Covid-19 emergency situation in the remote northern part of the country. Nevertheless, I was able to gather all immunization partners to discuss the technical assistance they provide. We are now working together to harmonize our activities to improve immunization data and strengthen the health information system.”

Participants report having engaged in courageous conversations and other adaptive strategies with doctors, development partners, religious authorities, and health ministers — and in one case marshalling resources for a stalled polio campaign. “My [adaptive] project was focused on the smooth uptake of the DHIS-2 at all levels in the southwest region. Although data managers at the different levels were reluctant to embrace the change that comes with the transition from DVDMT to DHIS-2, a handful of them are now making progress,” reported one participant. Said another, “As a supply chain vaccine officer, adaptive leadership gives me the confidence to do the advocacy, socialization and mobilization to introduce a new vaccine.”

Working in partnership with and gaining the trust of communities — not just persuading, convincing or compelling them — is key to expanding last-mile coverage. “This has helped in my job in epidemiology and in moving the organization to achieve a timely COVID-19 outbreak response. The community is responding positively…and vaccine hesitancy and drop-outs have been drastically reduced.” Said another participant, “I want to share with people how we’ve finally been able to address a long standing issue of community vaccine hesitancy due to weak conventional leadership.”

Jude Tuma, surveillance officer for the World Health Organization, on his experience with Adaptive Leadership

Despite the additional demands and stresses of dealing with the pandemic, all but a few participants stayed with the course — and all said they’d recommend the course to a colleague. “I must say the adaptive leadership course has been very useful to me. I am willing to support others who are interested in it when given the opportunity.”

ACA and its partners will launch another course in December 2020 with one hundred new participants. They are also preparing to engage in a worldwide initiative starting in early 2021 to ensure equitable access to the coronavirus vaccine once it becomes available.

Eric Martin is the Author of Your Leadership Moment | Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism. He is also Managing Director of Adaptive Change Advisors (ACA), the preeminent organization for mission-driven Adaptive Leadership development.

Democratizing Leadership in an Age of Authoritarianism #adaptiveleadership

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