What if? What if? What if?

I was a student athletic trainer when I was in high school. It was an easy class to fulfill my sports requirement since I didn’t want to play sports (other than soccer, of course) at the school, and you don’t play soccer in the winter or spring. One of my assignments was to travel with the baseball team to their tournaments and games and be there for first aid when something happened. I didn’t handle any serious stuff, really. It was mostly about icing sprains, wrapping jammed fingers, or cleaning scrapes and other wounds. I think the most serious thing I ever handled was a concussion. By “handle” I mean “dealt with for five minutes before the ambulance arrived”.

Anyway, at one of the baseball team’s practices, the coach was giving a chat to his players. He was very adamant about one concept: Thinking. He wanted them to think about the plays and react to the situation. He said that it was “idiotic” to just stand out on the field and wait for something to happen and then react to it. He told his players to always be mindful of the situation. Are there any runners on base? What’s the score? What’s the count? Which side is the hitter batting from? He told them to be mindful of every detail of what was going on during the game. “Look at the flags and see which way the wind is blowing because the ball’s gonna move on you that way,” he said.

This past week, I participated in a week-long seminar on strategic leadership in developing countries. For me, the course was less about how to be a leader and more about how leadership works. I’m a believer that you can’t make a leader, you can only bring out the leader in one who already has what is needed to be one. (What is needed is a subject for a whole other post.) One of the things that a leader should be ready for is a changing situation on the ground where he or she is working. The examples the professor gave was the response to national crises by presidents and world leaders. He was critical of statements like the ones coming out of the White House during the chemical warfare actions of the Syrian government to its people. The White House announced that the President was meeting with the national security panel. In the professor’s view, the White House should have announced that the President was aware of the situation and that a response was forthcoming. Announcing that he was meeting to decide what to do made the President and his cabinet seem unprepared.

There must always be a plan B, a plan C, and even a plan D.

The professor was intimately involved in the 1986 popular uprising in the Philippines. He was a member of the opposition, and he coordinated a lot of the messaging to the international media during the elections, the popular uprising, and the ensuing coup d’etat that ended the Marcos regime. He told us about how they had to change their strategies over and over to adjust to the moves of the dictator’s government. He said that they always had a plan be, and that this was one of the big reasons for their success. Like the baseball players at the high school, the revolutionaries asked themselves “what if?” over and over to be able to adapt to whatever the government threw at them.

Sadly, I see a lot of our leaders and authority figures being unable to adapt and adjust to a changing situation. I saw it a lot working at the health department during the 2009 pandemic. Things were changing, and they were changing hour-by-hour. But there were still those in positions of authority that wanted to do things “the way they’ve always been done”. When it was suggested to them that we use social media like (the then young) Twitter and (the already established) Facebook to inform the public on what to do — on top of distributing the messages on radio and television — the people at the top had an allergic reaction. In their minds, social media was a gimmick, something no one in the real world did. Or, if they used social media, it wasn’t being used by adults, only kids.

And don’t get me started over the discussions to close down schools. If the sole source of the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus was schools, shutting them down completely would have been the best thing to do. But shutting them down weeks into the pandemic and without other social distancing measures for those kids outside of the school, like not allowing them to mingle in malls and sporting events… Well, it was not a good move, in my epidemiological opinion.

If you ever get to be in a position of authority, or leadership, don’t forget to have plans B, C, and D ready to go for situations that are evolving. It is embarrassing for something to happen and you not be prepared for it. It can be tragic for the unexpected to arrive and you not even have a clue of how to handle it. Also, check to make sure your laces are tied, lest you trip yourself trying to catch a fly ball into center for the third out and end up losing the game.

Featured image source.

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

2 thoughts on “What if? What if? What if?

  1. “Announcing that he was meeting to decide what to do made the President and his cabinet seem unprepared.”

    Strange, what I took away from it was that the POTUS was exploring various contingency plans and would select the best one(s) for the situation as it evolved.

    “Or, if they used social media, it wasn’t being used by adults, only kids.”

    All the better, kids tend to notice those things and bring it to the attention of their parents, who probably aren’t tracking that information.

    “…like not allowing them to mingle in malls and sporting events…”

    It really depends on the rate of spread, density of the population infected, etc. One doesn’t shutter malls and sporting events unless one is also shuttering workplaces as well. If the cost of the prevention is higher than the cost associated with the disease, the preventative measure is a high cost solution that can economically destroy a local or national economy. That can unwittingly cause businesses to permanently close, resulting in hunger and its associated costs.
    Hence, the risk assessment is performed in order to ascertain what measures should be implemented.
    I’ve done risk assessments for businesses for their information systems. I’ve looked over some public health risk assessments, got headaches at all of the factors being examined. Still, that is the first step, the final step is mitigation of the risks.

    One major source of heartburn I’ve gotten from leadership, in many nations: The inability to admit making an error, making a bad call. The insistence that they are always right.
    That can cause a resistance to change, examples are what you outlined above and even with US support of the Marcos regime. Even today, we pay for that tendency with our dealings with Iran, whose democratic government the US toppled in order to install the corrupt and inept Shah. In that last, Operation Ajax was essentially conducted to help Eisenhower’s old war buddies in the UK, as their oil interests were threatened by Iranian nationalization of the oilfields after catching those oil interests stealing oil in wholesale quantities.
    Walk in remote areas of the Philippines (if you wish to do so, I’m sure your professor and I can give you a list of places to avoid), if you’re identified as an American, none will speak with you. Why? It’s assumed that you’re CIA.
    Repercussions of of mistakes past that went ignored and flawed policies continued until things blew up in the faces of the policy makers.
    Then, the policy makers try the rogue regime game-until closets the size of small warehouses full of shoes are shown to the world.
    Then, rather than admitting an error and apologizing, it’s ignored and hoped that the problem disappears.

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    • It was the same thing in Egypt. The US had a “strong ally” in Hosni Mubarak, but a lot of the terrorists were training there and being nurtured there. Bin Laden’s #2, now Al Qaeda’s #1, was radicalized there because he was oppressed by a government that was upheld with USA money. I can almost guarantee to you that the same thing is going to happen in Saudi Arabia, also a “strong ally” in the region. When that happens, whatever administration is in power here will not say that it was a mistake to support a despotic system that oppresses their citizens so much.

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