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On March 13th, 2020, Dr. Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the World Health Organization, was interviewed on WHO Health Emergencies Programme about lessons learned from his many years of experience with the Ebola virus.

In less than two minutes, Dr. Ryan delivered several powerful leadership strategies. While his lessons learned were about emergency response, the takeaways are applicable to leadership of self and others. As an entrepreneur and disruptor in healthcare, I find them particularly salient with regard to innovation. Dr. Ryan’s lessons include the following:

  1. Have no regrets.
  2. You must be the first mover.
  3. Be prepared.
  4. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.
  5. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Lesson #1 – Have no regrets

We waste time and energy by looking back and criticizing ourselves or others for things that didn’t work out as expected. Regrets can be reduced by following Lesson #3 and being prepared. Retrospective thinking can teach us a lot, however, it is necessary to approach it using a curious, not judgmental, perspective.

Do as much preparation as possible without falling into the traps of Lesson #4 and Lesson #5. My first film production professor started many of our classes reminding us to heed the warning of Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” By planning and then taking our best shot, we are less likely to live with regrets and the unproductive woulda, coulda, shoulda thinking.

Lesson #2 – You must be the first mover

In the world of viruses, Dr. Ryan’s lesson is focused on rapid deployment of strategies and the importance of getting ahead of the spread. In leadership and business, this is a reminder that growth and innovation come from a combination of creative thinking, pre-planning, and taking actions early on. Waiting to see if others are successful with a new strategy, invention, or business idea is not how innovation works. We must have the confidence and willingness to take some calculated risks and move into action and implementation in order to respond to a crisis or bring something new to market.

Lesson #3 – Be prepared

Leaders in organization and individuals would do well to schedule quarterly quiet time to invest in long view assessments. While we can’t plan for every scenario, we can think through potential future obstacles or challenges. Proactive approaches position us better to be able to respond to changes. Brainstorm, plan, and prepare for various contingencies to the best of your ability while also being mindful of Lesson #4. At some point, it is necessary to press the ‘launch’ button.

Lesson #4 – If you need to be right before you move, you will never win

There is no such thing as perfect so waiting for everything to be right, severely impacts innovation. You can’t win if you’re sitting on the sidelines. There are also many things you can’t learn if you’re not in the game. At some point, confident leaders move forward and implement the plan as is, then observe the outcomes and decide what, if any, changes or adaptations are necessary.

Lesson #5 – The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure

Failure is a judgment and fear of failure is related to being attached to a particular outcome. The first way we launch a new idea, product, or strategy may not be the way that leads to the greatest success, but it is often the first step on the path. If we are paralyzed by the fear that we will fail instead of being curious about what we can change to create a different outcome, we will be forever stuck at the starting line.

These 5 lessons, when taken together, make up a powerful leadership strategy that can help us:

  • respond to unexpected urgent and emergency situations
  • innovate and create new solutions, services, and products, and
  • achieve higher levels of success as individuals and leaders

Dr. Ryan may not have imagined his lessons learned from Ebola might translate into excellent leadership strategies but the insight of great leaders can transcend their area of expertise. For the full impact of his words, please watch the two minute interview excerpt from WHO.

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