An Ebola virus quarantine in Eastern Sierra Leone. Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn said community leaders have been doing the bulk of work to combat the virus, while world leaders stand by.

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Nancy Koehn On The Heroism Of West African Ebola Workers

August 26, 2014

Last week the head of Doctors with Borders, Brice de la Vigne, said world leaders are doing "almost zero" to help countries affected by an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. When broad-shouldered world leaders — many of whom have enormous international stature — aren't pitching in, everyday local leaders have stepped in to fill the void.

"Small-l" leaders is how Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn described the people working to beat back the virus. Healthcare workers are helping communities ravaged by the Ebola virus, often at great personal risk to themselves.

"About 10 percent of the 1,427 people that were reported as [killed] by the Ebola virus (...) were healthcare workers" helping to contain the spread, Koehn said. "Imagine you're a nurse trying to stay safe, trying to help people, trying to do your work, hour by hour, that is truly your calling — and chaos reigns."

Koehn noted an unheralded resolve in Ebola responders, from the people involved in primary virus treatment to the ones who dispose of bodies. "[That is] the whole concept of what I call 'leadership with a small 'l.' All of the unsung heroes, every single day who show up to make an astounding difference that we almost never think about, or hear about. (...) Leadership comes in so many different shapes and sizes."

The Ebola outbreak is a crisis that exists on a level above political and geographical boundaries. The rapid spread has forced organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to wrangle with politicians and governing bodies. The process has been slow and fraught.

"Someone has to stop this. It's not going to be the WHO. It's not going to be the government of these nations. (...) They basically shook their heads, and sat on their fingers for months before they did anything, as has most of the West."

By necessity, other actors have stepped in to fill the void, and they've done so at great risk to their lives and livelihood. But what type of person puts herself in the middle of a humanitarian crisis?

"It's less about characteristics, and more about the inner power and spirit that lies within us, often dormant — and then something (...) calls it forth," Koehn said. "I think what we see here — and those people who put themselves on the [Boston Marathon] finish line, those emergency workers who just pour into danger zones — is the spirit that gets unlocked, and is incredibly powerful, that makes an enormous difference (...), much more difference than any of these huge, big leaders that we put up on pedestals."

Koehn cited an unlikely event from the United States' Civil War to illustrate the almost inexplicable self-sacrifice seen in West Africa's "small-l" leaders.

"Joshua Chamberlain was a Bowdoin professor of rhetoric who became one of the most important figures of the Civil War. He and his group of Maine soldiers held off the Confederates on the second day of Gettysburg in a very important battle (...) called Little Round Top. It was a defining moment. If the Confederates had taken this small hillock, it would've changed Gettysburg. (...)

"They run out of ammunition and he forms this line of men locking arms with bayonets. But here's the point: it wasn't just the moment, because all these guys sign up to go again, many of whom were injured. Chamberlain himself was injured in the Civil War, and he keeps on coming back.

"Think of the African American soldiers who — once Lincoln allows them to fight, with a lot of urging from Frederick Douglass — go and fight, and fight, and fight again, many of them for pennies on the day. And we have to go back to this idea of, 'What am I called to do?'" Koehn said. "We're talking about the human spirit, at its best, gassed — not in the moment — by something they regard from the inside-out as something worth going to battle for every day."

To hear the entire conversation with Nancy Koehn, click the audio above.

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