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Adaptive leadership in the coronavirus response: bridging science, policy and practice

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Ben Ramalingam, Leni Wild

Hero image description: Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO, speaks at a press conference regarding the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in DRC, 2018 Image credit:UN Photo/Elma Ok Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The coronavirus pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to science, policy and the interface between the two. How – and how quickly – policy-makers, practitioners and researchers react to this emerging and complex crisis is making a profound difference to people’s lives and livelihoods (WHO, 2020). But how can we ensure effective collective decision-making on the basis of emerging evidence, changing trends and shifting scientific understanding, all in the face of considerable uncertainty? Recent experience highlights the need for adaptive leadership in national and global responses to the outbreak. This briefing paper sets out key principles for what this might look like, and proposes a roadmap for policy-makers, practitioners and researchers to move towards such an approach as they tackle the unfolding crisis.

Key messages

  • Tackling the coronavirus outbreak requires adaptation at operational and leadership levels.
  • Operationally, there is scope to strengthen evidence-based adaptive management practices, to adjust the mix and type of interventions being implemented and learn as we go so as to achieve shared goals. 
  • This requires adaptive leadership capacities, being open and transparent about learning, using collective decision-making processes and building trust with communities and individuals.

This publication is part of ODI’s series on coronavirus. It showcases emerging ideas and rapid initial analysis from ODI experts.

Ben Ramalingam, Leni Wild and Matt Ferrari