We Need Entrepreneurial Leadership in a Crisis

Babson College President Stephen Spinelli

Dr. Anthony Fauci, during his recent video conference testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, described a “Shark Tank”-like process in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) urged scientists and innovators to compete in a $500 million race to create new COVID-19 tests. The program is part of the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, a federal program created this week through $1.5 billion in stimulus funds. “We need all innovators, from the basement to the boardroom, to come together to advance diagnostic technologies, no matter where they are in development,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement.

I’ve never thought to associate the highly respected, data-focused and necessarily methodical NIH with a reality television show. But, I applaud this model to accelerate diagnostic testing capacity through a public call for innovation. It’s a model of using entrepreneurial leadership during a crisis. Utilizing an entrepreneurial approach to the world’s greatest and immediate need is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that could fast-track discovery which will save lives.

Utilizing Entrepreneurial Leadership in a Crisis

Since the outset of this pandemic, we have seen professionals from all walks of life embrace agility, resiliency, and problem-solving attributes, all core to the entrepreneurial spirit. Hospitals created new protocols and temporary set-ups to triage, test, and treat patients. Educators and companies turned to virtual solutions to conduct their work. Manufacturers transformed operations to produce PPE and ventilators. Even governments have been open to nontraditional and flexible containment strategies and responses.

Everything is on the table. That’s a real-world application of entrepreneurial leadership, and particularly leadership in a crisis.

Entrepreneurial leaders think boldly, armed only with limited data and constantly changing variables. They are uniquely able to connect social and economic values to make sustainable and purposeful change. Each step forward brings the reward of more resources, finances, and collaborative partners. Each step also involves the periodic need to retest the premise, reassess, retool, and recommit.

There’s a reason why historians talk about arcs of history. The process of innovation is never a straight line to the future. But, innovators never stop moving forward. Along the way, entrepreneurs’ trials create lessons learned that share knowledge and pave the way for others. Sometimes it’s the innovators just behind the indefatigable pioneers who ultimately achieve the objective.

“The process of innovation is never a straight line to the future. But, innovators never stop moving forward.”

Stephen Spinelli Jr. MBA'92, PhD

Already more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and millions are without jobs. By incentivizing multiple people and labs to work full speed toward new diagnostics, NIH believes it will be in a position to deploy the best diagnostic candidates into American communities by the end of the summer. This will boost our national confidence, aid our economic recovery, and hopefully help bring us closer to a vaccine.

Entrepreneurial leadership is a journey. Leadership in a crisis is essential. There’s no road map for the novel coronavirus. But, the same attributes that enable entrepreneurial leaders to make decisions, solve problems, and create value while others are still analyzing the situation are what will successfully lead us forward.

I am confident that this unique approach by the NIH will attract innovators with massive curiosity, perseverance, boundless networks, and the ability to stay balanced during disruption. And, as a result, these innovators from basements to boardrooms will reach the goal.

This post originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal.

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