Leading In (Novel) Crisis

David Burke

Crisis situations test systems and capacity across all levels of government, the private sector, and our non-profit partners. The universal nature of a pandemic, puts extreme stress on systems and capacity, and we’re already seeing things bend—if not break—in areas that have otherwise proven robust. COVID-19 is stressing travel systems, health system capacities, and even the way we’re accustomed to nation-states and international bodies interacting.

The stress that systems are currently experiencing drives demand to identify non-traditional resources that can augment capacity, shore up systems, or solve needs in new ways. As COVID-19 has progressed around the world, non-traditional, and seemingly extreme, approaches are being applied.

In a novel crisis, a backdrop most living Americans have never experienced, leveraging “The Expert” is key to success.


Find The Expert 

Because the disaster environment is regularly inundated with information—some actionable, some unverified, and some just inaccurate—leading in this space means you must separate signal from noise. As COVID-19 spreads, it’s critical to focus on information coming from people who have studied, worked with, and practiced around infectious disease for their entire professional careers, such as those at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health departments. At Team Rubicon, we use this specialized, expert information to educate and inform our members, the communities we serve, and all our social followers. In cases like this, it’s every organization’s and individual’s responsibility to strengthen the signal of accurate information and not to amplify the noise or speculate and spread misinformation.

Make no mistake, speculation and inaccurate information are incredibly dangerous in a backdrop that has created runs on grocery stores and gas stations. Listening to the experts, understanding your real risk, and preparing yourself, your family, and your organization and community is the best thing each and everyone one of us can do.

On 27 February, Team Rubicon shared a core message with over 110,000 volunteers across the country, directing them to the CDC and WHO to get the most up-to-date information and to take this disease seriously. We also publicly amplified these expert sources via our social channels.

This decision has been a key driver to all Team Rubicon information sharing and subsequent decisions while operating in the backdrop of COVID-19.


Listen to The Expert

You found the expert, now apply their expertise to your unique context: Leading in crisis requires frequent, active decision making. The longer you lead in these environments, the more background, context, and past decisions you’re able to rely on. You develop a comfort and begin to “automate” many decisions based on experience and may even reduce your reliance on outside experts.

But not now.

In uncharted waters, you have to resist the urge to go “automatic”: Consume a ton of new information, assess how it impacts the things you’re responsible for, and ultimately, decide how you can affect the best possible outcomes within your sphere of influence.


Be The Expert

Lead by example and offering support
At Team Rubicon, we found and continue to listen to “The Expert” – the WHO and CDC— to ensure we do everything possible to reduce the spread of this infection and safeguard the communities we serve and volunteers that serve them. While the situation continues to evolve, we remain ready to deliver our core capabilities and expertise where it best serves communities in need.

In every way, our capabilities and capacity allow, Team Rubicon has been supporting a range of non-traditional requests stemming from the larger COVID-19 response. From direct support to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to expert incident management assistance at the state level, and to assessing our volunteer base’s ability to help our partners in the delivery of their missions, Team Rubicon remains adaptable to this evolving crisis.

At HHS, our VP of Government Relations and Emergency Management, Jeff Byard, is supporting the department’s efforts with his unique expertise in the Federal system and the Incident Command System.

Through collaboration with Hagerty Consulting, an emergency management consulting firm, Team Rubicon has shared employment opportunities with our leadership volunteers to directly support state-level COVID-19 responses. This partnership has resulted in multiple Team Rubicon members and Incident Command System experts being employed at the state level through Hagerty.

Additionally, Team Rubicon is responsive to requests from across our partnerships with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (nvoad.org). As all volunteer-based organizations must do, we are assessing our volunteers’ safety, willingness, skills, and availability to respond against a backdrop of COVID-19. In line with the US population, volunteerism across the US is aging. Limiting the physical engagement of high-risk populations reduces our own capacity and the capacity of many of our partner organizations. And, in a time when the entire country will be impacted, it is critical to be collaborative and creative across all service organizations in order to support the needs that will originate from COVID-19 and all the hazards that Team Rubicon and our partners typically respond to.

Currently, significant tornadic activity is forecast across a large portion of the Midwest. Tornadoes and hurricanes don’t recognize COVID-19 as a planning factor, but the systems, coordinating bodies, and partners we work with must plan differently in order to meet needs in this environment.

In a post-fact world that is consumed by the spread of misinformation, pandemics like COVID-19 make expertise all the more valuable. Leaders at all levels of society, from the President all the way down to our local Girl Scout troop leaders, must take seriously the facts and scientific best practices in order to blunt the impact of this virus. And they must be willing to make the tough, informed decisions necessary to do the same.

For an idea of how to put this into practice, here’s the timeline on how Team Rubicon has reacted and planned towards the COVID-19 pandemic:

Find The Expert

On 27 February, Team Rubicon shared a core message with over 110,000 volunteers across the country directing them to the CDC and WHO to get the most up to date information and to take this disease seriously. We also publicly amplified these expert sources via our social channels.

This decision has been a key driver to all Team Rubicon information sharing and subsequent decisions while operating in the backdrop of COVID-19.

Listen to The Expert

On 2 March, Executive Leadership from Team Rubicon recognized the importance, urgency, and timeliness of the situation. This disease would significantly impact Team Rubicon operations, Greyshirts (our volunteers, leaders, and staff), and every community in the country. We established a cross-function team to lead the organization through this unprecedented event. This team’s objectives were simple – safeguard our communities, volunteers, and employees; ensure continuity of our core operations; prepare to flex to support the needs of this novel crisis.

On 3 March, Team Rubicon made the tough but prudent call to centralize operational decision making and in-person event approval. This action allowed consistent review of operational impacts and minimized potential for otherwise innocuous organizational decisions to spread the infection.

Also on 3 March, Team Rubicon implemented a process step to offer local public health departments right of refusal for any operations being planned in their jurisdictions.

On 10 March, TR made the call to limit exposure on our operations and events by restricting in-person engagements of Greyshirts, our volunteers, that live within community spread locations as well as restricting the same for Greyshirts in high-risk categories.

On 12 March – We made the decision to reduce all in-person activity to core disaster operations and requests for non-traditional support directly related to COVID-19.

On 12 March, TR made the call to limit exposure by committing to a WFH posture for all non-essential in-person employees.

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