I spent a decade chairing the group that oversaw the response to biological and other threats in Hong Kong. The 2003 SARS outbreak was one of the challenges we faced, and I was lucky to have an outstanding team of senior leaders who taught me valuable lessons about leadership in a pandemic.

There were three key lessons I took away. The first was the importance of stories in leadership. I knew all about this, but in the pressure of the moment, as deaths were mounting, I forgot the basics. In meetings where the government’s early response was being finalised, I spoke about the singular importance of personal and environmental hygiene. My political ‘master’, who had been looking for something a little more sexy, burst out in indignation “Is that it? Is that what we are going to tell people – ‘Now wash your hands!’? “ parodistically quoting a government health message from the previous century.

With hindsight, that reaction was understandable and fair. If I had told the story about how a sceptical military had been converted to the importance of hand washing by a simple experiment, then I might have landed the message better.

In the experiment, army recruits were separated into groups as usual on arrival for basic training, but one batch had instruction on a regular hand washing protocol and its use was overseen by their sergeants, 5 times a day. The other group had no specific instructions beyond the usual recruit training emphasis on maintaining smartness of the person and cleanliness of their environment. Recruits spend several weeks together, and there was a wealth of data about viral infection rates (colds and ‘flu) from previous cohorts. The groups that washed their hands 5 times a day under the supervision of their sergeants had markedly less sickness through colds and ‘flu, and also less sickness from gastro-intestinal infections. There are now many similar stories available on the net – from schools to hospitals, making it easier for leaders to pick one that resonates with their people.

The second lesson was the importance of leaders, at all levels, modelling the required behaviours. In our bomb disposal unit, for instance, the entrance was changed so that the first thing all operators saw was a well-stocked hand washing facility. As every leader arrived at work, they washed their hands immediately, thoroughly and visibly - and the habit soon spread. Other workplaces where leaders talked about hand washing but did not model it, had far less success at stopping infections.

The third lesson was that clear, transparent and relevant messages are vital to reduce the natural fear people feel. Government advice in a pandemic, which must constantly evolve, needs to be disseminated quickly. However, instead of simply repeating the advice, successful leaders also spoke about why the advice was valid, and took care to ensure that all employees understood how it was being implemented in the context of their workplaces.

Social media has made this messaging issue even more critical. Bad advice, some of it malicious, now circulates astonishingly quickly, and starting every meeting with the simple question “Has anyone heard any rumours or contradictory advice?” and then dealing with what arises, is as vital a part of leadership in 2020 as it was in 2003.

Three simple leadership lessons emerge from my experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak – research a good story to reinforce the importance of hand washing; visibly model the necessary behaviours as a leader; and control the spread of rumour and bad information through clear and relevant messaging.

I now work with senior leaders as a consultant and coach, and my days as a biological warfare specialist are over. However, I have not forgotten the iron rule in any crisis, biological or otherwise, which does so much to save lives: anyone who starts to feel the symptoms of becoming an armchair expert should immediately self-isolate for at least 12 months.

In this COVID-19 crisis, I am frequently asked for my opinion about when the pandemic will peak, what the fatality rates will be, and whether the government’s contingency plans are likely to be effective. Sometimes I am actually in an armchair when the questions come. With the iron rule firmly in mind, I always respond that I simply don’t know. But I do know that good hand washing and clear messaging are going to be part of the solution.

Dominic Brittain
Dorset, 2020