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Lessons Learned While Fighting Ebola

Published Tuesday May 12, 2020

Author Judi Currie

Lessons Learned While Fighting Ebola

When an army civil engineer, building bases and military training sites across Africa, learned of the Ebola outbreak he took on the pandemic rather than seek shelter.

Lt. Col. Anthony Barbina, U.S. Army Battalion Commander for the New England Recruiting Battalion with headquarters at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, was deployed as part of Operation United Assistance to Liberia in 2014.

“It was a great experience, one of the best deployments of my career,” said Barbina, “To see a pandemic, I thought it was something I would never see again.”

He adds that many of the lessons he learned are applicable today.

Under the direction of the U.S. Dept. of State, Barbina and his team surveyed locations to determine where treatment could be sited. Working with both local contractors and Army engineers from Fort Hood in Texas, they focused on getting the bed space they knew would be needed so the pandemic would not overwhelm the hospitals.

“We were also teaching people about the spread of the diseases, [it was a custom] that people would lie with the dead to help their ancestor on their path,” he said. “It is like us with shaking hands, we have to change our behavior.”

Barbina says he learned that a crisis increases the role and importance of an effective leader, CEO, or commander increases.

“The #1 lesson I learned is that leadership matters. If they are the calm within the storm, the team will succeed. Second, you have got to communicate clearly,” which he said is much easier now than it was even six years ago.

“Tools today are a huge help, in Liberia the connection was slow, it was very painful,” he said. “Today you have a lot of arrows in your quiver: Microsoft Teams, Zoom … all kinds of software that enable us to meet frequently, discuss, plan and execute. When a crisis happens, things change so quickly.”

He said his third Ebola lesson is to be prepared. Because he had built base camps in Afghanistan, he was prepared to meet the needs in Africa.

“Number four is to be fast,” said Barbina. “You have to blend safety, but perfect is the enemy of good enough. You have to set up your team roles and responsibilities in crisis. If you are good and fast, a solution now gets us to 80% versus three days from now, which gets us to 90% when it’s too late.”

Lesson #5 is to define reality, Barbina says. “Control the controllable and understand what is uncontrollable. I can’t stop a sick person from coming into my station, but I can protect my team. As a leader you mitigate the things you cannot control.”

As battalion commander for the New England region, Barbina coordinates recruiting for the Army and Army Reserves in New Hampshire, Maine, Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with 300 recruiters at stations in multiple communities.

Just as many businesses and organizations have had to adapt to the pandemic, Barbina has had to use his lessons to help his team continue to be successful.

“I needed to take them out of the usual face-to-face work with recruits, out of the schools, and figure out how they can work remotely.”

He said he asked them to set up a designated workspace and create a commute, including time for family and a workout and to dress for success. 

“You have to get your brain into what we call cloth cognition. I am working from home but still wear my uniform,” Barbina said. “You need to have a schedule, and give at least an hour of your day to help teach your kids. If you follow a schedule you have a better chance of family and work-life balance.”

Barbina says teleworkers given a clear objective, but not being told how to do it, will work more hours and will often outperform those in an office.

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