Responding to Uncertainty: A Reflection on “Patient Zero”


Today in “Leadership in a Global Context”, we completed the “Patient Zero” simulation, a scenario where a new pandemic has ravaged your fictional nation, and you—being the leader or part of the leading decision making body—must make life or death choices about how to proceed. The simulation posited five main conundrums, and we had to make these choices as a team. For me, while it was very close, the hardest question was on choosing between privacy and security. The simulated universe’s equivalent to Apple or Google secretly offered the government the ability to use a backdoor in their hardware to track and collect information on their users. In a pandemic, this is obviously desirable; our fictional nation of “Leadership Land” was having a very difficult time getting accurate metrics on cases and spread, and was mostly failing at contact tracing. By exercising this illegal offer, we would be able to collect better data on all of these parameters, especially being able to trace the spread of the virus. But distrust of our government was already very high—some people even thought the experimental drugs we were offering to raise immunity would be used for mind control—and we were very worried about news breaking that the government had been completely disregarding the law and fueling even further (arguably justified) conspiracies. Ultimately, we chose to accept, but severely limited access of the information to high level medical leaders. The public did not find out, and we limited infection, but clearly the risk of the choice was high. Originally, when I first read the prompt, I was pretty confident we should not use it, as was most of my group. However, as we discussed we went back to what our actual goals and principles were as a nation. We wanted to save lives above all else, and decided that a zombie apocalypse was probably a dire enough circumstance to bend the rules.

Each dilemma required a lot of deliberation within the team. We didn’t spend a ton of time establishing the ways by which we would come to decisions, and naturally adopted a system seeking consensus but satisfied by the majority. Overall I was pretty happy with our approach to satisfying conflict and reaching a decision. Everyone who wanted to offer up their opinion did so first, and then we discussed the merits and arguments until it seemed we had reached a clear unmoving majority or until we ran out of time. However, I do not think we did as good a job making sure we kept everybody involved throughout the simulation. We didn’t really try to solicit opinion, just expected people to offer it up, and I think this disadvantaged some people’s opinions and advantaged others. It’s something I will more actively look out for in the future.

The simulation was built to introduce adaptive leadership, a style that emphasizes decision making in unprecedented times. Unlike a technical problem where the best (or at least a satisfactory) solution is already known, adaptive problems are issues where no known expert can be found because no known expert has ever studied the question before. Adaptive leadership focuses on the latter of these two problems, celebrating emotional intelligence, organizational justice, development, and character. I personally really like this concept. All of the greatest leaders are known as such because of their response to rapidly changing and unpredictable times. Working to become a better adaptive leader is working to become the very best. It’s very easy to lead well in a field where every question is already known, while it’s a lot harder to do so in the face of uncertainty. These principles especially resonated with me of all the things in the simulation and the debrief. Learning to be a leader is learning to be a leader in extraordinary circumstances. Going forward, this is where I want to focus my energy: in developing the emotional intelligence, organizational justice, development, and character traits required to be able to adapt well to an erratic situation.

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