There are going to be scores of postmortems and countless lessons to be learned when we finally emerge from the unforgiving hold of COVID-19. Somewhere near the top of the list of appropriate questions may be how the richest nation in history found itself so ill-equipped for what many saw coming.

But let’s leave that for another conversation.

At this stage of our experience in fighting the novel coronavirus it seems more than appropriate for us to pause to recognize and underscore the vivid case study we are witnessing — a real-life illustration of what can be accomplished when alignment around purpose drives decisions, activities and investments in a singular mission. 

While varying sectors chose to perpetuate tired conversations that only served to accentuate differences — from the efficacy of masks as a preventative tool to whether super-spreader events were a reality — healthcare professionals, scientists and manufacturers from around the world chose to bring unprecedented focus on the discovery of a solution.

The final chapters of the story are, no doubt, years away. But notwithstanding enormous challenges associated with distribution, there is little doubt that today multiple highly effective Covid-19 vaccines exist. To a notable and significant degree, this is the byproduct of multiple entities finding ways, even within the confines of competition, to collaborate in pursuit of a single purpose.

Moncef Slaoui oversaw the quest for development of a vaccine at a pace most, including yours truly, deemed impossible. But his leadership philosophy was characterized by an innovative collaborative approach. Slaoui, in an interview with economist Steven Levitt, spoke of the immense contribution that science as a community can make to humanity when driven by a greater purpose.

“The thing that is important, and It’s unfortunate that it takes a crisis for that to happen, is the intrinsic alignment of all the players. That rather than spending time arguing for the last 5 percent of alignment, everybody’s aligned…we don’t have to repeat the same conversation twice. And that does happen when you’re in a crisis setting.”

And before you note that the development of a vaccine has a distinctly commercial aspect to it, let’s acknowledge this. Leaps in science are almost always seeded by significant investment and driven by an enterprise. Given the right mission, competition does not have to spell gridlock or stalemate. Slaoui shares this perspective.

“Each company maintained their intellectual property very close to their chest; yet everything else was shared…how you conduct the clinical trial, how you build up a manufacturing site, how you recruit more subjects of…how you measure the immune response…everything that wasn’t in the product itself, cooperation and collaboration was maximal. So, it is possible to maintain the area that is competitive, and then identify everything that’s not.”

But let’s not get distracted. The point of this discussion is that, even in the midst of diverse views, alignment around bottom-line goals can facilitate miraculous results. 

There is, in my view, a poignant lesson for all who aspire to lead in the healthcare arena in these times of high consequence change. What do we value most? What are the bottom-line principles that guide us? What is our vision for the future of healthcare?

To the degree that our mission is driven and inspired by caring and healing, we can accomplish miraculous things. We will not be able to resist the advances that come with collaboration. On the other hand, if we yield to the siren song of lesser guiding principles, we will struggle to find solid footing.

There is a healing power when our purpose is clear.

Postscript

In 2015/16, after the Ebola crisis, Slaoui offered a proposal. “Why do we each time have to act after the fact, spend enormous resources, have lots of people die {before we} deal with a pandemic? Why don’t we create an organization…with 150 or 200 scientists and industrialists, to research, develop and manufacture vaccines against a list of more than 50 agents known to be potential pandemic viruses? Why don’t we go through that list…one by one…make a vaccine, test and stockpile {so that we are prepared}?”