Adapted from a phone interview, May 15, 2020.
Q: How has the Army responded to COVID?
The Army was probably the first U.S public entity that had to address the effects of COVID. When the virus initially spread outside of China, it was to South Korea, where there is a large U.S. Army presence. The commanding general on the ground in Korea had to make decisions, in the moment, to protect the welfare of soldiers and their families.
As the pandemic spread, the Army pivoted quickly to meet the nation’s needs in responding to domestic challenges from COVID. Working alongside FEMA, CDC, and every state and territory in the nation, the Army provided support in three broad areas: medical research and support; engineering support; and transportation, logistics, and security.
In terms of medical support, the Army has scientists and medical professionals on the front lines all across America. Our medical research facilities are looking at how to prevent COVID through a vaccine as well as how to treat it through antiviral medicines.
Additionally, we reconfigured our field hospitals into Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces which deployed directly into local hospitals. These teams, primarily from the U.S. Army Reserve, consist of doctors, nurses, medical technicians, dentists, pharmacists, and dieticians. Today we have ten teams deployed: four in New York, three in New Jersey, and one each in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
The second effort is engineering support. FEMA tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to respond to 64 requests for construction activity. Using over 15,000 personnel, the Corps has expanded emergency hospital capacity and helped with temporary pharmacies and morgues. Mortuary Affairs teams, again from the Army Reserve, don’t get a lot of attention, but it’s very important activity that provides proper care and dignified handling of the deceased.
Finally, every state and territory has National Guard elements deployed to help provide a variety of services that governors and local officials have asked for in the areas of safety, transportation, and logistics.
Q: From an organizational perspective, how does a pivot like this happen?
The Army is a mission-driven organization with a very structured decision-making process. The Army applied the same approach that we would use in preparing for conflict to the challenges of COVID. Indeed, we said, “Our adversary is COVID; here’s the mission: protect the force, maintain readiness, provide support to the nation.”
The Army was starting to adapt to the COVID challenge relatively early, with “intelligence” collection and contingency planning beginning in January. This work was continually updated with new information and best available science, to develop courses of action and make risk-informed decisions.
There are dedicated processes for coordination inside the Pentagon. We’re on day 109 from when the Army repurposed around COVID. At the very beginning, the three-star level meetings that I participate in were held twice daily, then daily, and now they’re a couple times a week.
When examining risks at a particular location, we get fairly granular. For example, we look at where an army base is, its mission, demographics and population of the surrounding community, what the risk factors are, the possible rate of spread, where medical facilities are, and the number of ICU beds. We can present that all graphically for the whole Army to use.
As parts of this country open up, the Army will probably lag behind as we work to preserve and protect the force. Particularly on installations where we’ve continued basic training.
Q: How have you adapted in terms of managing your own team during this period?
The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Strategic Integration, which I lead, is responsible for providing direction for strategic planning and allocation of the Army’s $17 billion installation budget as well as a variety of “smart cities” initiatives. Normally, for those of us working in the Pentagon, telework is not really part of our DNA. So in February we started to prepare the simple things. Who can telework? Who’s been trained to telework? Do people have the necessary information technology assets? We deployed new—for us—videoconferencing tools.
We actually did a rehearsal. We sent everybody home for a day to see how it worked, and we learned from that. Eventually, we got the orders to reduce populations in the Pentagon to about 15% of the 26,000 people normally there. Almost everyone is at home. Or, like myself, working at the Pentagon a couple days a week.
We haven’t become Bay Area telework entrepreneurs but have embraced telework as part of “distributed operations.” This is a military term for many small units moving around the battlefield in a synchronized and coordinated manner. We’ve applied that doctrine to what we’re doing. In terms of leading my team, in the morning we do an online check-in. Every evening we do a full staff call.
I pay a lot of attention to human performance and psychology. I’ve had one-on-one calls with every member of the team to talk through how they are adapting to isolation and stress. Do they have at-risk people in their household? Do they have enough food? How are they managing personal stress and wellness?
I’ve really been leaning forward to try to show that everyone is important and valued. I recognize that protracted distributed operations has been challenging for all of us. We’re used to working a long hard day in the office, and then going home to focus on family. If you’re working at home, it can all blend together. It can be harder to have a sense of accomplishment on any front.
On a personal level, I have tried to cultivate a greater sense of gratitude for all my blessings as well as compassion for the conditions of others. I’ve been a soldier, and, after I graduated from the Yale School of Management, I served as a relief worker with the United Nations. I spent years in war zones and refugee camps all around the world. That taught me to be thankful for the simple things in life. Connection with family and friends. Companionship with others, the opportunity to demonstrate compassion and empathy. Those are the things that are important.
Q: What do you expect the longer-term impacts of COVID to be?
The impacts of the Great Depression lasted decades. Similarly, the debt from World War II took decades to pay off. We don’t know how COVID is going to play out, but it’s likely we’re just at the very beginning of what could be a multi-decade set of consequences.
The elements of national power—economic power, diplomatic power and influence, military power, and cultural or informational power—are in flux, for better or worse, not just in the United States, but around the world. I think there’s going to be significant pressure re-sorting global power and influence.
If there is something I’m hopeful about, it is the prospect that we can learn from our current situation. To the extent that COVID is a global public challenge, climate change is a bigger global public challenge. For more than a decade and across three roles, I have worked on sustainability, energy, and environment as a strategic issue impacting the welfare of the nation. Climate change is real; it’s going to affect all of us in the public and private sectors, and at the global, national, organizational, and household levels. I would like to believe that we can leverage the awareness of global connectivity highlighted by COVID to achieve a greater collective response to climate change.
There’s been a lot of discussion of COVID as a “black swan” event. Nassim Taleb’s concept of the black swan is a truly unconceivable event. I would submit that the pandemic and climate change are not black swans, they’re not unforeseen. You can find projections of global pandemic threats going back decades. Experts urged a greater level of preparedness, but we as a world, and as a country, didn’t follow these recommendations. In terms of climate change, the scientific consensus going back 40 years is that it is happening and it’s going to be bad. We cannot afford to continue to ignore these warnings as well.
The pandemic and climate change actually fit the concept of the “pink flamingo,” which is a known threat that a society or organization is unable to adapt to, either through cultural bias, irrational decision making, or entrenched practices. Taleb argued that we can start to build “anti-fragility,” or the more common term, resilience, into our lives. As a society we’ve organized around efficiency. Maybe we need to think a little bit differently, adopting “resilience” as an organizing principle at the individual, household, organizational, and national levels.
We know something bad is going to happen; it’s just a question of when and how bad. That’s a leadership challenge. We require leaders, principled leaders of conscience, to urge our country to be better prepared. The notion of resilience is one that all organizations would do well to look at.