What should leaders do when they're trying to solve an enormously difficult problem and the stakes are as high as they come? Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford School of Medicine, asked Bill Gates this question during a video interview last month and Gates shared some wise advice for anyone leading a team through tough times.
"For many of us as leaders, these have been the most challenging months of our careers. What advice do you have for us?" Minor asked Gates. Eradicating Covid-19 is the No. 1 mission for both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gates himself, and it could be the hardest task he's ever faced, so he seemed to appreciate the question. Here's what he had to say.
1. Don't get sucked into short-term crisis mode.
"This is a period when it's easy to work 24 hours a day," Gates began. "We have to say, OK, we're in this and it's not just the next few months. Sadly, it's the next few years, even in the best case, before the elimination of this disease so it's not coming back and reinfecting even countries that have done well."
Like most big problems, the pandemic won't be solved quickly, and that means you need to make sure your team members take care of themselves so they won't burn out along the way. That goes for you, too. "You really want to work for the long haul," Gates said. "You want to maintain the morale and capacity of your people."
Given the many lives that depend on creating and quickly distributing a Covid-19 vaccine, it's very tempting for foundation employees to work 24 hours a day, he said. "We have to temper that somewhat, even though it feels like, 'Gosh, isn't today the day I should go day and night?'"
2. Be careful of making promises you can't keep.
The entire world is eager to know when Covid-19 will be behind us and we can return to our normal activities. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, there was an enormous temptation to give optimistic answers to these questions. Many business and government leaders did just that.
"I think it's important not to over-promise," Gates said. "Even though I'm super hopeful about these tools. Early on, there were people saying they would come in quicker than they should have. That's not very effective."
3. Bring people together.
Gates stressed that the foundation's most important role has been to bring together people from different companies and different nations in the fight against the pandemic. Normally, he said, when new medicines are developed, market forces allow the best and most cost-effective to prevail.
In this case, that's not an option, he said. "So creating alliances, of Indian manufacturers and Western manufacturers, or different people working with antibody capacity, these types of collaborative forums have turned out to be super important."
Ending the pandemic will require assembling some very different skill sets, he added. "Making vaccines at a low cost and high volume, that's a separate skill from inventing new vaccines and getting the world to work together," he said. While the pandemic is a unique challenge, most large and complex problems require many different skill sets to solve.
4. Stay focused on what matters most.
Ignoring countless distractions, including a fractious election, a president who's provided varying messages about the dangers of infection, and conspiracy theories linking Gates himself to its spread, Gates has stayed single-minded about helping to develop and deploy vaccines and cures for the coronavirus. There's a simple reason for that. "Every month earlier you get the vaccine and have people understand that it is beneficial is measured in lives saved," he said. That may be the most powerful thing a leader can do when facing a tough problem--never lose sight of what's most important.