Nadja West: Not By The Sword and Shield, But By The Head and Heart - What We Can Do To Lead During COVID-19

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This is a guest blog post authored by Lieutenant General Nadja West, the first African American Army Surgeon General and Former Commanding General, US Army Medical Command.

The sword and the shield are formidable implements of battle when used against an adversary that is susceptible to injury by the sword and whose blows can be repelled by the shield. They are great weapons when facing a peer or entities like ourselves, that have similar weaknesses and strengths, that when struck bleed, or when pushed fall. On the other hand, when there is an indiscernible enemy, formless and shapeless to our eyes, that can inflict significant damage or harm, other strategies and tactics must be employed. When facing these nemeses, the weapons we must employ are wielded by the head and the heart. We have heard it said that words can cut like a knife. Words can also inspire, encourage, heal, and minimize fear; especially when there is no physical weapon or shield yet available for the conflict.

There is no better illustration of this than the words that flowed from the pen of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a small cell in Birmingham in April, 1963. He used his intellect and the wisdom in his head and the benevolence of compassion of his heart to battle the enemy of injustice, misunderstanding, and lack of concern for fellow man to reach the hearts and hopefully the heads of those who did not understand how conditions at the time were tearing us apart as a Nation. His eloquent and loving treatise in response to those who questioned his methods of achieving victory remains relevant today as an example of the power of head and heart for us all.

In an article discussing the change in the character of war and the strategic landscape, General Joseph Dunford tells us that “our planning must adapt to provide a global perspective that views challenges holistically and enables execution of military campaigns with a flexibility and speed that outpaces our adversaries. We must be prepared to make decisions at the speed of relevance.” He continues that “we must further develop leaders capable of thriving at the speed of war—leaders who can adapt to change, drive innovation, and thrive in uncertain, chaotic conditions. . . . . it is the human dimension that ultimately determines the success of any campaign.”

Though General Dunford’s remarks were in the context of the character of war in the 21st century against conventional adversaries, his observations are relevant as we face a submicroscopic infectious agent. This non-peer adversary is afflicting and killing our fellow human beings and is not able to be defeated by our traditional weapons; and we do not have the shield of innate immunity to combat it.

How do we lead in this environment? While countermeasures and preventive vaccines are being developed to address COVID-19; as leaders, the greatest weapons in our armory are our heads and our hearts.

The Army describes leadership as the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. It captures the essence of what leaders are supposed to DO and implies what they should BE and what they must KNOW. All of us can and should consider ourselves leaders, and by enlisting our heads and hearts we can successfully serve on the front lines of battling the COVID-19 Pandemic.

We all influence people -- in our families, neighborhoods, communities, businesses, teams, governing bodies, and in any other entity we are a part of. We may not be as eloquent as Dr. King, but we can influence by our words, or silently by our deeds. We can lead by informing our heads; by learning and understanding what our PURPOSE is, which is to work together to successfully maneuver through and survive this public health crisis and the collateral damage it has caused in our nation and our world and come back stronger on the other side of it. Once we understand this we can provide that purpose to those we influence.

We can work to understand the actions we must take by staying informed of the measures our authoritative public health and governing officials tell us; such as washing our hands frequently with soap and water, coughing and sneezing responsibly, maintaining social distancing and staying at home when appropriate or if directed. Due to the rapidly changing environment with evolving information about the nature of this novel threat, we must stay up-to-date with the latest recommendations. Then, we can provide DIRECTION to those we influence by sharing reliable information and relaying the actions we must undertake collectively, and operationalizing those measures to each of our own unique situations. After understanding what we must do and providing that direction to others, we must reflect on what we must be as leaders. How can we MOTIVATE and inspire others during this time of change, uncertainty and chaos. This is where the “heart” comes into play. That is where the character, values and attributes of leadership are cultivated and reside.

Publications about leadership are thick on the ground. We dissect the definition of leadership, the types of leadership, the styles of leadership, the attributes of leaders, etc. in our academies and institutions of higher learning. The situation at hand requires us to descend from the theoretical and strategic, to the operational and tactical. It is time to figuratively fix our bayonets and engage “hand-to-hand,” one-on-one (at a safe distance) with those around us, not to fight but protect. We need to engage the heart as we lead. We must demonstrate those values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage as we lead and interact in this environment, and reflect on what living each of those values really means, not just paying them lip service. We must take actions that may not benefit us personally, but are for the greater good of others. For instance, staying at home even though we may feel fine to protect the more vulnerable. Comfort and assist those who are experiencing a loss of a loved one or the loss of their livelihood. Safely visit or virtually check in on the shut-in. Encourage the fearful or those in despair. Take time to be grateful and thank and pray for those who are risking their health and safety by going to work each day to care for the sick, protect our nation, and keep the sectors of our economy that are able to remain open running. These are things of the heart. And this is what embodies the American spirit and what comprises the human dimension that will determine the success of this campaign.

As many of the ways we have operated in the past have dramatically changed, we have the opportunity to transform adversity into a resilience-building experience; to face chaos and uncertainty with our hearts strengthened by the knowledge that we are in this together and for each other. This may seem trivial and of little comfort for those who have lost much if not all. But we must, and will, adapt and become more agile so we can bounce forward to face the next unknown challenge when our dedicated scientists and researchers succeed in ensuring that COVID-19 is no longer novel and joins the rank of Polio and Measles – diseases caused by those submicroscopic infectious agents we have conquered and can prevent.

So, not mastery of the sword and the shield for this battle, but leading with the head and heart will unite us, secure victory, and make us stronger for the future.

LTG Najda West

A trailblazer in female leadership, Lieutenant General (ret) Nadja West is the 44th Army Surgeon General and the former Commanding General of US Army Medical Command. She is the first African American woman 3-star General in the Army’s history, the first African American Army Surgeon General, and currently the highest-ranking woman to ever graduate from West Point. West shares her story of grit, perseverance, strength, and breaking boundaries, even when faced with adversity. Taking audiences on her journey to becoming the Army’s first African American woman 3-star General, she motivates them to overcome challenges with self-belief, bravery, and balance. With more than 20 years of experience in executive leadership, crisis management, and disaster response – including her instrumental role in crafting the DOD medical response to the Ebola crisis – West speaks expertly on leadership tactics to effectively lead teams through times of uncertainty and crisis.

To learn more about Lieutenant General Nadja West, visit her speaker page, call us at 1-800-Speaker, or chat with a sales representative now.

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