Leadership and resilience during crises

Leadership and resilience during crises
Source: Ghana| Casely Ato Coleman | IMANI
Date: 18-04-2018 Time: 05:04:11:pm
Casely Ato Coleman


This paper examines key concepts, learnings and best practices in leadership and resilience during a period of crises with reference to the Ebola Virus Disease(EVD) outbreak in Sierra Leone. This has become timely in the light of the many warnings of the effect of climate change in Ghana, According to USAID Ghana, in the next 20-30 years, there will be increased high temperatures in Ghana which could range between 1.2 to 1.6 centigrade.  As the temperature gets warmer there will be more evaporations and more clouds leading to more extreme rains. Climate change will affect sanitation, livelihoods, rain-fed agriculture and energy security amongst others. The Meteorological Service has also predicted an impending earthquake, whiles tremors were recently reported in parts of Accra. This means things are going to get worse and we need to put in place the right leadership and systems in order to cope with and recover from the shocks when they do occur. This paper will discuss resilience and leadership and apply it to lessons learnt during the EVD crises in Sierra Leone. It is hoped that it will guide policymakers in charge of disaster risk preparedness and response in Ghana.

What is resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means recovery from a challenging event and experience.  There are many examples of resilience in recent times, where individuals, families, communities, and nations have invested efforts to rebuild their lives after a period of stress and adversity. Some notable examples include the Sahel food crises in 2012, the Ebola crises in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, from 2014 to 2016 and the two civil wars in  Ivory Coast in 2002 to 2007 and 2010 to 2011, and the conflict in Rwanda from 1990  to 1994. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity in their lives. In fact, the pathway to resilience requires behaviors, thoughts, actions, systems and leadership that can be learned and developed.  According to Frances Wesley(2013), resilience theory is becoming more popular as a lens to focus on linked social-ecological systems at all scales, from the individual to the organization, to the community, to the region, and to the globe. As a theory, it is deeply interdisciplinary, representing the intersection of psychology, ecology, organization theory, community studies, and economics. According to Crawford S. Holling (2001) resilience focuses on the balance between continuity and change, a continuous (or infinite) cycle of release, reorganization, growth, and consolidation that characterizes all resilient living systems.


According to Susan Ward (2017), leadership is the art and science of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. This leadership definition captures the essentials of being able to inspire others and being prepared to do so. A crisis is any event that is going (or is expected) to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or whole society. Crises are deemed to be negative changes in the security, economic, political, societal, or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning. It is a period of adversity. The Business Dictionary defines it as  Critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe”  http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/crisis.html.

Sierra Leone Context

Sierra Leone suffered the highest number of cases, with each of its 14 districts affected. Its first case was declared on 25 May 2014 in a region bordering Guinea, and its final one was recorded in the last week of January 2016. By 17 March 2016, when Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola transmission for the second time, a total of 14,124 confirmed, probable and suspected cases (nearly half the regional total), with 3,956 deaths, had been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2016b). It was an epidemic that was defined by the UN as a threat to international security. The initial response to the outbreak was characterized by confusion, chaos and denial. Sierra Leone’s health system was already weak, and the government was unable to mount a robust response. WHO did not mobilize the level of assistance and expertise expected – a failure for which it has been widely criticized. The rest of the international community was slow to react to the alert sounded by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which recognized the severity of the threat early on.

After a slow global reaction, the international community responded within the framework of the four guiding principles of humanitarian action namely humanity, impartiality, independence, neutral)  and nine  core humanitarian standards namely response is appropriate and relevant, effective & timely, strengthens local capacities and avoids negative effects, communication, participation and feedback, complaints welcomed and addressed, response is coordinated and complementary, actors continuously learn & improve, staff supported to do job effectively, treated fairly and equitably, resources are managed and used responsibility for intended purpose. The disease was finally defeated after a declaration by the WHO on  17 March 2016.

Five Key Lessons From The Ebola Response

Firstly, building resilience during crises, requires leadership courage, political will and commitment to take risks and tough decisions . For example the government of Sierra Leone placed a ban on public gatherings e.g. religious, social, political, sporting etc.  The leadership shown by the governments of Senegal and Ghana in creating a humanitarian corridor to facilitate and coordinate the mobilization of support and resources from UN and other development actors to fight EVD was a major factor that helped to cope with the adversity caused by the disease.  In a crises situation you need leaders who are able to build strategic relationships, demonstrate empathy, show resolve, seek understanding, take quick decisions and document learning from the experience.

Secondly, building resilience to cope with a crises situation requires leadership to engage at multilayers at community level, national level and global level to tackle quality response and services, and  drive behavior change and accountability. In Sierra leone, at the community level faith and community-based leadership structures were engaged to take ownership for community care centers, facilitate social mobilization and community engagement.  At the national level, the government actively engaged development partners, key state institutions, youth, media and political and business elites to support and provide feedback on the quality of the response. Social innovation also plays a role in ensuring accountability during a crisis. In Sierra Leone organisations like Plan International worked with youth groups to develop a feedback mechanism using information technology to provide feedback on real time issues and challenges. At the global level, there was extensive engagement by key regional and global agencies e.g ECOWAS, AU, UN/WHO etc. A defining moment was the March 2015 EU Brussels conference where commitments were made to mobilize resources to drive resilience building to help Sierra Leone recover from the shocks of EVD.

Thirdly accountability and structure is very key to cope with and recover from crises. Clarity on decision space and decision mandate has to be backed by success indicators to ensure everyone involved in the response is held accountable for their actions before, during and after the crises is over. In the case of Sierra Leone, a National Ebola Response Centre(NERC) was established that had had overall oversight and supervised district response centers. The NERC was led by a CEO who also happened to be the Minister of defence and a former military general and he reported directly to the President. The command and control structure during the crises brought discipline to the response. There was also active engagement of civil society groups and non-state actors e.g youth groups using feedback mechanism on the response and the media to highlight suspected cases of fraud which were reported to the relevant agencies.

Fourthly establishing a clear theory of change is very crucial to cope with and recover from a crises situation. A clear theory of change must emanate from a response logical framework that guides leadership to tackle the crises. Key aspects include clarity on overall goal, strategic objectives ie key thematic response areas. The nature of EVD required a multi-disciplinary approach. NERC organized the response around key pillars under case management, surveillance, logistics, laboratory, psycho-social, social mobilization, burials, and communications etc. Aid agencies then mobilized resources around the pillars under the leadership of NERC. Many agencies has programs in key result areas such as child protection, education, social mobilization and community engagement, health, livelihoods. This ensured alignment with the overall national response. This helped to report on intermediate results, outputs, indicators and activities. A disaster always has many aspects and the EVD crises was an example which had health, socio-cultural and sensitive faith-based undertones.

Fifthly, building resilience during and after a crises requires speed and rigor which can only be realized through data driven decision making. According to Emma Ross, Gita Welch and Philip Angelides (2017), data sharing was a significant problem. Figures quoted by the Ministry of Health were not matching WHO’s, nor what responders were reporting from the field. However, it is also generally agreed that the relatively good street naming system provided reliable information to reinforce contract tracing and surveillance.  Data-driven decision making helps systems strengthening when it is backed by a total rewards strategy that combines compensation, benefits, performance, recognition and continuous professional development of key response staff in alignment with 9 Core Humanitarian Standards.  There were several instances of responders who threatened industrial actions over timely payments affected the speed of the response at various stages.


Every individual, family, community and country will at one point in time experience a period of crises or adversity. Building resilience to cope with and recover from that adversity requires leadership, multi-layered engagement, accountability, a measurable theory of change and strong execution and rigor backed by solid data to facilitate decision making. Strong leadership during EVD created a space to integrate clinical as well as social science preventive and curative approaches which was reinforced with the right organizational, leadership and people capability. In order to build capability in resilience, a leader during a crises period must derive insights, show empathy, be able to engage conceptually and emotionally to rally the troops, have resolve and surround him/herself, and be comfortable working with people who are more talented than the leader. Ghana needs to invest resources to strengthen resilience building to cope with future natural or man-made disasters. We are living on a time-bomb!

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