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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Leadership from unexpected places-Ebola crisis

Ann Skeet
In this file photo from Oct. 28, 2006, a mock patient is cared for during a drill at the Nebraska biocontainment unit in the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In this file photo from Oct. 28, 2006, a mock patient is cared for during a drill at the Nebraska biocontainment unit in the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The past few weeks have reconnected those living with the arrival of Ebola in the United States to a simple reality. We are all in this together. Wealthy or not, educated or not, American or not, pandemics claim victims with little regard for money, hard work, intelligence or inheritance. Perhaps this is what frightens Americans the most.

In moments when such realities present themselves, leadership is appreciated in immediate, tangible ways. It is human nature to want to be assured that we are safe, that someone with the necessary skills and experience has the evolving crisis in hand and that we do not need to worry. This is true during wars, financial meltdowns and illness outbreaks.

Many of the people holding formal leadership positions during this outbreak understand the need to reassure. No doubt, leaders stepping before the microphones know that those listening want action, policy and consequences as evidence that we are safe.

History offers opportunities to reflect on actions leaders have taken in such tough spots that are ethical and effective. Famous inaugural addresses offer a few hints. Leaders who tell us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself or ask us to consider what we can do for our country rather than the other way around, are tapping the only known antidote to uncertain, non-controllable threats.

In these moments, solutions do not come from central bodies and formal institutions and the people leading them but rather from the people led by them. Each person choosing to demonstrate leadership in times of uncertainty and peril is more likely to influence outcomes and define the "right" behavior than are leaders standing before the press corps.

This is how it is that two men who earn their livings as strippers might have more influence on the Ebola outbreak in the United States than the Centers for Disease Control. It's possible their increasingly publicized personal decision last week to self-quarantine after sitting next to Amber Vinson, the nurse who was diagnosed with Ebola, on the flight she took from Dallas to Cleveland. It also nets them name recognition and publicity that helps their careers as male strippers and writers of romance novels.

It is hard not to compare their choices, though, with those working in the health-care professions who put personal interests first and decided to travel.

Only now is the CDC figuring out what the self-quarantined male strippers already knew: people will commit acts of great sacrifice when asked. Choice and control are powerful tools in managing human nature and they should be well understood and used by formal leaders.

Imagine how differently Kaci Hickox might have reacted to a request to self-quarantine rather than a mandate? The glow she had when she arrived from serving in West Africa might be still be in place, and she would be just as effectively out of harms way, I suspect, having chosen to comply.

My colleagues and I debate the duties of health-care workers in this moment. I ask myself if the fire fighters who climbed the towers the morning of 9/11 were any better outfitted or trained for that situation than the health-care workers now facing Ebola. But climb towards people in need they did.

Each of us can ask some basic questions to test our responsibility should we be confronted with a similar challenge to our personal leadership in extreme situations:

  • What is the severity of the harm of my actions? Is human life threatened?
  • How certain is the harm? How large is the risk?
  • What is the degree of my personal involvement? Have I created the danger?
  • Am I part of the immediate community (i.e., someone who works at Texas Presbyterian) or the only one who has the chance to act to stop the threat?
  • What is the cost of acting?
  • What is the certainty that our solution will work? The more certain, for example, that a 21-day quarantine will work, then the more responsibility we have to use it.

What does leadership look like in these moments? Those in the key jobs right now — the secretaries of health and human services, homeland security and transportation, the president of the United States, public directors of health — need to be asking more of the led right now. We will all rise to the occasion.

Ann Skeet is the director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article originally appeared on on MarketWatch, Oct. 30, 2014.

Oct 30, 2014