Real Leaders

What Leaders Can Learn from Pfizer’s CEO and the COVID-19 Vaccine

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer pharmaceutical company, arrives to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Thursday afternoon, January 17, 2019 in New York City. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up over 150 points at the close on Thursday, after news reports that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is floating a proposal to lift some U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods in an effort to push trade talks forward between the U.S. and China. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine is an example — probably an extreme one — of the importance of leadership and team commitment to achieving breakthrough results.

Typically, it takes about ten years for a vaccine to get to market. But Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine took less than a tenth of that time. And, the vaccines developed by Moderna and AstraZeneca have been on a similar schedule. In the face of the global pandemic, all three have been developed in far less time than anyone thought possible.

There are two critical lessons for leaders here, with implications beyond COVID-19. The first is that leaders have an essential role in redefining what is possible and encouraging people to pursue solutions beyond old, familiar ways of working, which are often not adequate to solve unprecedented problems. The second is that it’s fundamental to establish a shared sense of commitment and direction for a group of people to become a dedicated team that works together creatively and efficiently.

No doubt, Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer (pictured above), has helped redefine what is possible. Reportedly, Mr. Bourla was not satisfied when told that the vaccine for COVID-19 would be ready only by mid-2021. He told his senior management that people tend to underestimate what they can achieve and that his team was capable of much more. And as we can all see now, Mr. Bourla was right.

Simultaneously, the pandemic provided a catalyst that gave a common purpose to Pfizer’s team as they worked to develop and produce the vaccine.

But what happens in a different context, when a collective crisis is not so obvious? Can leaders still shape a common purpose? In those situations, what we might call genuine leaders are especially important. These are leaders who follow their convictions and passions and establish relationships with their teams openly and authentically. These leaders know how to create a shared purpose and the conditions that empower each of their team members to give their best.

This kind of leadership is not about having “charisma” or “executive presence.” Nor is there a universal formula to follow. It’s something that takes work and dedication but can be developed with practice and intention. Each person can develop their genuine, unique style of leading.

But beyond the specific character of each leader, we find some common traits. Recently, in preparation for my book The Expanding Circle, I interviewed more than three dozen “genuine” leaders and found some common threads:

Lead with your story. Genuine leaders tend to have a good understanding of themselves, their values, passions, and motivations. Leading from their passion gives them internal harmony, strength, and resilience. At the same time, their teams perceive them as genuine, which helps foster trust.

Many of these leaders are also good at articulating who they are and what they care about in a personal story. That articulation allows team members to make sense of who their leader is, and it helps them relate to her as a person — beyond her formal authority.

Mr. Bourla’s story was well-known to Pfizer’s employees long before the pandemic. Originally from Greece, he never imagined that he would end up running a pharmaceutical giant. In fact, his original training was as a veterinarian. But once he arrived at Pfizer, his self-knowledge told him that this was the place for him. And according to many people in his team, Mr. Bourla is friendly with colleagues at all levels and always ready to engage in open conversations.

Articulate a common purpose. Genuine leaders spend much of their time listening. Not listening passively, but actively spending time with staff, asking questions, seeking to understand their motivations and stories.

Based on this understanding of others and a clear idea of the objective to be achieved, these leaders create and share a narrative that gives meaning to the joint work, a common direction that facilitates collaboration.

In a way, COVID-19 made it easy for Mr. Bourla and his leadership team to articulate a story that facilitates a common goal and fosters commitment. The importance of the vaccine endeavor was evident for everyone. But at every opportunity, both in person and in writing, Mr. Bourla reminded his team what was at stake, why they needed to do more, and that is was needed faster.

Empower others. Genuine leaders create the conditions for others to take the initiative, be creative, and contribute their best. They do not micromanage but rather work to guide and empower others.

During the development of the vaccine, Pfizer’s team met biweekly. There were no set agendas. The goal was to allow open participation and encourage everyone to share their views. This helped underscore the shared commitment to their goal, and it demonstrated that everyone’s engagement was critical to collective success.

COVID-19 is still with us, and we continue to learn how to deal with it every day. Indeed, it will leave scars, but it will also drive some positive lessons. Among them, we can explore new horizons and redefine what is feasible when we face unique and even unprecedented challenges.

We can be sure that COVID-19 will not be the last crisis that demands new ways of thinking and working. And genuine leaders, such as Mr. Bourla, will be especially well-positioned to motivate their teams to challenge themselves and achieve breakthrough results.

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