Defeating COVID-19: Lessons from the business of complex warfare systems


The Coronavirus pandemic has us engaged in “warfare” whether we wanted it or not. And it’s truly a “World War” geographically, unlike any other in recent history.

Predictably, after a few months with no decisive “victory,” the media, members of the commentariat, the establishment, and the elite power structure are second guessing in earnest, searching for blame-worthy individuals, and demonstrating their laser-like hindsight.

Here in America, the president has been blamed, accused, and hit with every imaginable criticism since before he was elected. Now Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, the Surgeon General, other task force members, and any other entity that shows its face as having a role in the “war” is fair game. The usual suspects are seeking political advantage, and expanding the size of government and its borrowing/spending with wild enthusiasm, not to mention seeking new knights in shining armor to be their Lancelot. The upcoming federal election raises the stakes to historic levels.

I spent my entire career employed by a major Defense contractor of historical stature. Those years were spent working on components of major shipboard combat systems comprising sensors, weapons, displays, computers, communications, etc. We were members of a team that included shipbuilders and a number of other well-known major contractors, all overseen by a brilliantly led Navy Program Office. After nearly 20 years of retirement, I still carry with me pearls of wisdom from those working days.  Here are the ones that come to mind for today’s crisis:

The challenge of the ages is being decisive in the absence of certainty.” I can’t remember who said it, but its wisdom should be abundantly obvious.  Except, I suppose, for hindsight gurus. Anyone can be a genius and make the right decision if the consequences of each option are known to a certainty before the decision is made.

Absence of certainty calls judgment into play, and true leaders apply it after seeking the advice of qualified experts in all aspects of the challenge at hand. The essence of leadership is not inerrancy, but courage, wisdom, and the determination to set a course, get underway, and apply corrections as necessitated by new facts and truths as they reveal themselves. And more importantly, the ability to inspire the team to follow their leader, even if a particular input has seemingly been overruled.

Precious few have the ability and gumption to integrate advice and insight from a cast of subject area experts, and then act decisively in the absence of certainty and the presence of divergent opinions. It should be obvious that without such unique skills, all could be lost.

No battle plan survives first contact.” This is a corollary of sorts to the pearl above. One can draw upon all the experience and expertise at hand to build what seems to be a surefire plan to defeat the opposition. In actual warfare, we often have detailed intelligence on the capabilities and behaviors of the enemy, and the particular traits of their leaders. Even still, history shows that combat is a chess game, and one must be prepared to parry unexpected moves and strategies. At the same time, we strive to throw the enemy’s plan into disarray by any means possible.

In this case, our enemy is a widespread, invisible, microscopic, infectious agent whose behavior “in battle” was unknown. Precious few national experts had any serious knowledge of the enemy, and they were forced to gather information from wherever they could, and draw conclusions as quickly as possible to advise the National Command Authority.

It was inevitable that a steep learning curve would be involved, that previously unknown theories and unforeseen fallacies would come into play, and that converging on a singular, absolutely foolproof solution would take time and excruciating effort from the best human resources we have. In the meantime, we would have to allocate and deploy our health care resources with consummate wisdom, and pray that those on the frontlines would be able to hold the enemy at bay until such time as a miraculous “weapon” could be deployed worldwide to overpower our opposition.

Fast, good, cheap – pick any two.”  This was a first rule of thumb whenever a customer for our very complex systems decided that a new feature, capability, or system component was needed. Schedule, performance, and price were always the initial considerations. The essence is that if you want it very quickly and with great performance, it won’t be cheap. If you want it quickly and at low cost, the performance will take a hit. You get the drift.

In our current crisis, we might modify this to “Fast, effective, cheap – pick any two.”  We are not going to win this war quickly or effectively and still keep the costs of doing so under control.

Real leadership is all too rare – and critically necessary. I often say I’m not sure how to define leadership, but I know it when I see it.  I was incredibly fortunate in my career to have worked for a number of world class leaders, in the Navy, my employer and our industry team.

My employer and the larger team were in the complex systems technology business, so as you might expect, engineers were always at the forefront. Electrical, mechanical, structural, computer program, ship design, reliability, and many more disciplines. They were the repository of our unique skill sets and experience base; the core competency that made us successful at what we did.

But there were other skills and disciplines involved in developing, building, delivering, and sustaining successful products, systems, and ships. Project Offices; Contract Offices; Manufacturing; Logistics Support; Training; Finance Management; and more. As much as our engineers and the technology base they represented always wanted their advice to be the dominant input in any major decision, these other players often brought other realities into the mix, and the major decisions reached were informed by the combined expertise and advice of a well-integrated team rather than a single technical discipline. 

Competent, persuasive leadership was the glue that took in all the inputs and opinions and made the choices and decisions that optimized all aspects of the solution, not just the nuts and bolts technical details.

In the complicated war in which we are currently engaged, our leadership must confront an interconnected array of crucial trade-offs delineated by direct reporting subject area experts with supporting data such as it is.  Unknowns, known and unknown, add to the uncertainty. Once a direction asserts itself, the National Command Authority must evaluate it with the instincts and experience base accumulated over a lifetime. The final details often arrive as a gut feeling arising in an aura of serenity. Here is when personal confidence rises to the level where it can motivate and inspire the individuals who must implement the plans with precision and determination.

This is a distinctly human process of intellectual art; it cannot be supplanted with digital algorithms comprising so-called artificial intelligence.  No such technical construct can impart the personal confidence and commitment of a fully-formed leadership plan.

If you’ve never had the good fortune to work in the presence of such leadership, you may not realize what you missed.  Perhaps you can study the conduct of our Coronavirus war and begin to see it in the framework described above.

I hope you reach informed conclusions about effective leadership in a crisis, and how inspired leadership integrates and multiplies the effectiveness of individual contributors. America and the world need it now more than ever.


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