Command in a Time of COVID

April 06, 2020
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The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed virtually every aspect of American life, and military units are struggling to come to grips about what this means for their operations. Like many other Americans, military members and their families are concerned about what this virus will do and how it will affect their lives. Now, more than ever, leadership plays a critical role in ensuring the continued functioning of critical aspects of society. Most military units do not have the ability to shelter in place, they must continue to perform critical missions for their service and the nation. Commanders at each level must rise to this occasion and lead their units, their installations, and their communities through this period of uncertainty and fear.

For many Americans the world changed on the night of March 11th, as major COVID-19 news broke seemingly every few minutes and the reality of the exponentially expanding global pandemic seemed to finally hit home. Reports broke that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 and the National Basketball Association suspended their season, the President announced sweeping European travel restrictions, and Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the virus. The shocking string of events seemed to change the conversation. COVID-19 was no longer a slightly more serious strain of the flu; it was a dangerous virus spreading beyond control, and it could affect everyone. I woke up on the morning of March 12th realizing the world had changed and we were in a new kind of fight. It is not the fight we may have wanted, and certainly one for which we were not, yet it is one we have to win. As a commander facing this altered operating environment, I was struck by the thought that these were likely the same feelings many commanders had on September 12th, 2001. Unfortunately, many commanders today have failed to grasp the scope of this crisis, and the critical role they must play in guiding their units through this difficult time. This is not a minor event that can be ridden out; the COVID-19 crisis represents a major threat to our force. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has declared, “The Department of Defense is engaged in one of the great global challenges of our time as we work together to combat the spread of the coronavirus.”[1] We must respond quickly, forcefully, and smartly to this crisis.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper discusses Department of Defense efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, March 23, 2020. (SSG Brandy Nicole Mejia/DoD Photo)

Commanders need to internalize and accept that their command tours are very likely to be defined by the COVID-19 crisis and their response to it. This may be incredibly disappointing and frustrating to some. Most commanders take control of their organizations and have a plan they have been waiting years to execute, biding their time until the service entrusts them with the awesome responsibility of leading an organization consisting of some of America’s finest young men and women. Many of these commanders have implemented their plans, and some have even seen the fruits of their labors as their organizations have begun to change, and mold themselves in response to the vision the commander has laid out. Now though, many of those plans have been put on hold, as the COVID-19 crisis has become all-consuming. The feelings of disappointment and anger are understandable, but commanders need to overcome those feelings quickly and step up and lead their units through this fight. It does the unit no good for the commander to dwell on what the virus has cost them or the unit; the organization needs the commander to be strong, comforting, and to guide the ship through the crisis.

Military commanders can do much to step up and lead right now. General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, recognized the critical role commanders will play during the crisis. In a letter to the service’s Wing Commanders, General Goldfein said; “Every day brings new challenges and opportunities and no situation presents a one-size-fits-all approach. You must tailor your response to fit your community situation…Commanding during a crisis is an opportunity of a lifetime…to rise to the occasion and lead through the storm.”[2] Units, their members, and their families need a strong hand leading the way through the crisis. As General Goldfein said, this challenge also presents an opportunity for commanders to guide their organizations through the crisis.

There is no joint publication that explains how to respond to a global pandemic that has uprooted American life. There is no checklist on how to command in a time of COVID. Each commander must evaluate his or her unit, the circumstances they find themselves in, and how they can tailor a response to their unique situation. There are, however, tools that a commander can and should leverage. First and foremost, the commander must be visible, transparent, and honest. Second, the commander needs to communicate the unit’s plan for responding to the crisis, and they must lead the fight. Third, the commander must focus on keeping the organization connected during this incredibly difficult time. By using these tools, the commander will set the tone for the organization, structure a coherent response, alleviate some of the fear of the unknown, and lead a proactive approach to countering the physical and mental impacts of the virus.

Visible, Transparent, and Honest

Most importantly, the commander must be visible; they must be reaching their soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines. Closely linked to being visible is being transparent. Many unit members and their families are scared, and they are probably spending a lot of time pent up in their homes with not much to do but watch the news and scroll through their social media feeds. Rumors run rampant, and some members will start to focus on the worst-case scenario. The commander needs to get in front of the story, they need to be open and honest with their members and their families; let them know the situation in the unit; and remain available, willing, and eager to answer questions.

The most important role of a commander during a chaotic and uncharted period is simply to be seen, heard, and trusted. A leader who is visible and engaging with their unit is a leader building trust. General Robert Abrams, the Commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, has been the epitome of a visible leader. Since the start of the crisis he has been out front and visible, engaging on social media with his troops and their families. According to General Abrams, a “key to success has been open and transparent communications with our people…We've also gone to great lengths in leveraging social media to continue to provide [the] best information to our community that is timely, accurate, and relevant to them.”[3]

Being visible is necessary but not sufficient. In a crisis like this, leaders must be open and honest in their communication with their unit’s members and families. Nothing is more likely to stoke fear and rumors than a commander who appears to be hiding information. Disseminating the information about the current situation, higher level guidance, and the next steps is vitally important. In a rapidly developing situation like the COVID-19 crisis, “I don’t know yet” is often a truthful and acceptable answer. The commander must dig, however, for that answer and bring it back to their unit. This transparent and honest communication shows the commander’s vulnerability. They don’t know everything, but it also shows their determination, and they are working on behalf of their people and the unit to find answers. Additionally, leaders must engage with their personnel in mediums that appeal to a wide audience. General Abrams has been active on Twitter; many other leaders have been visible on other forms of social media, specifically Facebook. Regardless of what one may think of these social media platforms, it is likely the most efficient means a leader has to rapidly and frequently update and communicate with those under their command. A commander who ignores these mediums is not wielding a valuable tool in their inventory.

Communicate the Plan and Lead the Fight

Units need to be led, and people expect the commander to have a plan to guide the unit through the crisis. The lack of a clear plan and commander’s intent sows doubt, confusion, and even fear. The commander does not need to develop the plan, though that does not hurt, but they must be intimately familiar with it, able to clearly articulate it, and vigorously execute it. In this fight medical professionals are providing overarching guidance, leading the consolidated response, and coordinating higher level efforts; but commanders at every level need to have their own subordinate plans tailored to their unit’s needs. Commanders should not focus on the medical specifics, though they should be familiar with them. They need to focus on how their unit will implement the required medical procedures and guidance while still executing vital missions and taking care of members and their families.

By the time most military officers rise to command, they have completed various professional military education courses, and many are experts in executing military operations. Commanders should leverage that experience and treat this crisis like any other combat operation. We should take lessons from U.S. Forces-Korea, who have been successful in combating the virus, with only 9 confirmed cases (out of 58,000 military, dependents, government civilians and contractors) through mid-March, even while South Korea was one of the global hotspots for the pandemic.[4] How was the organizational successful? General Abrams is clear he believes his organization’s operational approach to the crisis played a major role in their success. “I assess one of the keys to our success is that we operationalized our approach to combating COVID-19 from the very beginning. This is not an administrative task, this is not a medical task and it's not a routine event, but it's an operation. We are conducting 24/7, round-the-clock operations…We've approached it similarly to how we operate in combat.”[5] This is how commanders, typically trained in military planning, should tackle the crisis. We know the enemy (the virus), the end state (a healthy and high-functioning military force), and our commander’s intent (“mitigate the effects of this pandemic” while “remaining prepared to carry out our core national security missions”).[6] Using these knowns, a unit can develop local plan to combat the virus. The commander is responsible for approving the plan, understanding it, and passionately and clearly explaining and leading the execution of it.

The Author’s COVID-19 Response Operational Approach

Keep the Organization Connected

This battle is unique in that leaders cannot forge traditional bonds through physical presence, as social and physical distancing discourages the proverbial sharing of a foxhole. The commander must find ways to maintain unit cohesion and connectedness, even if those bonds must be virtual. Isolated unit members are at risk for mental fatigue, and they are prime targets for fear and depression. It is the commander’s responsibility to break down the walls of isolation, even during a period of physical distancing. A commander must use the weapons available to them; social media interactions, video chats and phone calls, as well as virtual gatherings and events.

Commanders should and will be judged by how they lead their units through this crisis. They can stand on the sidelines and await more complete medical information and higher headquarter guidance, or they can respond proactively to the crisis and develop a local plan to combat the virus. The path the commander takes is likely to leave a lasting mark on their unit. Is the commander a passive observer during this unparalleled time? If so, they shouldn’t expect their units to enthusiastically rally behind them in their next fight. If, on the other hand, the commander is a visible, transparent, and honest leader communicating the plan, leading from the front, and striving to bring the whole unit with them, that organization will be bonded by their shared experience in fighting through this crisis rather than riding it out. The cardinal sin that no commander can afford to make in this time is delaying and waiting for clarity on the path forward. No one knows how this virus will spread, and no one will have perfect information with which to make decisions. As General George Patton famously said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” A more apt quote could hardly be applied to this unique moment in American history. Commanders don’t have another week to develop a perfect plan, they need to step up, assure their units, lead their operational response, and keep the organization connected. That is the key to commanding in a time of COVID.


Tyson Wetzel is an officer in the United States Air Force and the commander of a squadron of over 400 uniformed personnel. The opinions are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Secretary Mark T. Esper, “Message to the Force – COVID-19 Response,” Memorandum for all DoD Personnel, 27 March 2020.

[2] General David L. Goldfein, “Letter to Wing Commanders (and Civilian Equivalents),” 13 March 2020.

[3] General Robert Abrams, “Gen. Robert B. Abrams Holds a Press Briefing on U.S. Forces-Korea’s Response to COVID-19,” Department of Defense Transcript, 13 March 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2112176/gen-robert-b-abrams-holds-a-press-briefing-on-us-forces-koreas-response-to-covi/.

[4] General Abrams, “Press Briefing on U.S. Forces-Korea’s Response to COVID-19,” 13 March 2020.

[5] General Abrams, “Press Briefing on U.S. Forces-Korea’s Response to COVID-19,” 13 March 2020.

[6] Secretary Esper, “Message to the Force – COVID-19 Response,” 27 March 2020.



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