Be a Better Leader. Learn From this Vaccine Rollout Mistake.

Jake Wilder
Feb 9 · 6 min read

In Times of Uncertainty, Control is Self-Defeating.

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could,” said Steve Jobs, describing the core difference between managers and leaders. Managers thrive on executing to established processes. When problems come up, their first instinct is to find what worked last time and follow that same path.

Yet in today’s world, most of our challenges are new. There is no established process. There is no go-by. We need leaders that can develop innovative solutions to new problems, not execute past solutions to recurring problems.

As Keith Grint put it, management deals with déjà vu, what we’ve seen before, while leadership is more vu jàdé, that which we’ve never seen.

In new situations, management’s go-to tools — executing plans and measuring progress — fall short. Managing a problem within the existing system doesn’t help when the system is now obsolete. That path leads to delays and stagnation.

Instead of trying to manage these situations, we need leaders to lead people through them.

Jeremy Bentham once said, “The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.” Similarly, the power of the leader is in the uncertainty of the situation. The practices that define great leaders — developing a compelling vision, challenging conventions, encouraging broad-based initiative, and building agility within the organization all focus on taking advantage of uncertainty.

Management tries to minimize uncertainty. Leadership seeks to adapt within it. And with each new challenge, we all need to decide: Do we approach it with the mindset of a manager or a leader?

“Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” — Tom Peters

Georgia state health workers recently raided the Medical Center of Elberton, the largest vaccine provider in the county, and seized 470 shots of the Pfizer vaccine. The Georgia Department of Public Health then said that it would not be providing any more vaccines to the medical center for the next six months.

The reason? The clinic was vaccinating teachers. And teachers were not included in the current phase of the rollout.

The clinic said they were confused over the essential grouping. The town’s schools have been open throughout the pandemic, since many of the 3,000 children don’t have internet service and rely on the school for food. They finished vaccinating all of the first responders and were supporting teachers in parallel with the town’s seniors.

Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t count itself as one of the states authorizing vaccines for teachers. The state felt it had no choice but to seize the 470 vaccines and redistribute them, along with 2,100 additional doses, to five other providers in the area.

So here’s the question: Did the state do the right thing?

And I think the answer depends on whether you’re considering the issue from the standpoint of a manager, or a leader.

“Although worker motivation and capacity are destroyed as leaders pick power over productivity, it appears as if bosses would rather be in control than have a company work well.” — Margaret J. Wheatley

If you’re looking through a management lens, then yes, the Georgia Department of Public Health acted appropriately. They set up a process. The medical center agreed to abide by that process. And there should be consequences for anyone that violates it.

A core rule of management is that you get what you tolerate. If you allow one clinic to violate the rules, you send the message that everyone can violate them. In which case, why bother having a process at all?

And the reason doesn’t matter. As several traffic cops have told me over the years, ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse. Intentional or not, processes and rules survive on accountability.

So yes, as a manager, I fully agree with the state’s decision. But as a leader, I just see it as another reason why the vaccine rollout is taking so long.

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The vaccine rollout is taking longer than we expected. And while there are many reasons for the delays, a critical one is that while the health care industry prioritized product innovation, they ignored process innovation.

The effort to develop the vaccine was inspiring. Diverse groups all came together to create, test, and manufacture multiple vaccines in record time. It’s a great example of just what can be done when companies push themselves to aggressive goals and challenge past conventions.

But with all of the attention that went towards developing the vaccines, less focus went towards distributing them. Despite tremendous innovation on the product, few people thought to innovate the process of delivering vaccines to a large population of people as quickly as possible.

Innovative leadership drove the vaccine development. Yet now managers are handling the rollout. And they’re using an established process for a new situation: centralized decision-making and standardized instructions.

A manager’s primary job is to minimize uncertainty. And the best way to do that is by exerting control. Processes, rules, and centralized decision-making are all means of exerting control and minimizing uncertainty.

In some cases, this is necessary. Vaccination dosage decisions should be centrally controlled. But in new, uncertain situations, management’s instinct for control is self-defeating. It slows down the process. It discourages individual ownership. And most importantly, it takes decisions away from those best positioned to make them.

While universal problems, such as vaccination doses, require centralized control, other problems are better left to local decision-making. Effectively distributing vaccines within a given area is specific to that region. Hence, it makes more sense to push that authority to local decision-makers.

When the state of Georgia confiscated the 470 vaccines from the Medical Center of Elberton, they distributed them, with another 2,100 vaccines to five different sites. Some of these sites are only able to distribute 50 vaccines a day. By holding to the process, the state doesn’t improve distribution. It merely throttles the potential supply and hinders the overall goal.

As a result of the state’s decision, distribution will take longer. And more people will be at risk.

In these situations, we need to empower everyone to contribute towards the solution, not centralize authority within management. This starts with recognizing that no one has all of the answers. And remembering that there’s no point in surrounding ourselves with intelligent, independent people if we’re just going to tell them what to do.

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details” — Jeff Bezos

The best customer service companies give employees the freedom to adapt into unique situations and make a genuine connection with people. The most innovative organizations encourage their employees to investigate new ideas and find connections across industries. And the best companies hold people accountable to the outcome, while letting them choose the best process to get there.

In all of these situations, strong leaders recognize the need to divest control to those best suited to make the decisions. Where managers try to minimize uncertainty, leaders embrace it. Where managers try to exert control, leaders give it away. All of this builds trust. And when everyone is operating in a culture of trust, they’re much more likely to contribute towards a new, innovative solution.

Nothing new is easy. Or simple. Whether it’s a vaccine rollout, a new product development, or an organizational change, hundreds of different events all need to occur for the overall project to succeed. With this much uncertainty, trying to manage control is a recipe for disaster. As Peter Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive,

“The unexpected always happens — the unexpected is indeed the only thing one can confidently expect. And almost never is it a pleasant surprise.”

The answer isn’t to double down on control. That route only leads to more rigidity. It slows down responsiveness and hinders the effectiveness of those doing the work.

Instead, in times of uncertainty, recognize that we don’t have all the answers. Acknowledge that there will always be more possibilities before us than we can possibly imagine. And focus less on enforcing accountability to a process and more on encouraging people to contribute to a new solution.

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Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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