Doing Business Well in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons from the US Navy During World War II

The news headlines about mutated COVID strains originating in the UK, South Africa, and elsewhere have spread anxiety about the implications for organizations and individuals alike. Recently identified in the US, it likely arrived here by mid-November, with hundreds of probable cases by now. Yet should you be truly worried and change your plans?

us-flag-navy-shipThe media, experts, and officials have focused on concerns about vaccine effectiveness. While some legitimate concerns exist that our vaccines might be 10-20% less effective against the new strains, this relatively small difference shouldn’t make you too worried. In fact, scientists may quickly update the mRNA-based vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech to make them fully effective against these new COVID variants. So once the US achieves herd immunity through mass vaccination by the end of 2021, these new strains won’t really matter.

However, another aspect of these new strains should make you very worried indeed: they’re much more infectious.

Unfortunately, the implications of their infectiousness have received little news coverage. Moreover, prominent public officials have downplayed concerns about the new strains. Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House coronavirus testing czar, gave an interview on December 27 to “Fox News Sunday,” where he said “It is not any more serious than the normal strains of COVID.”

Such complacency reflects our sleepwalking in the pandemic’s early stages, despite numerous warnings from myself and other risk management experts. Our brains don’t deal well with such threats, making it much more difficult to adapt successfully to slow-moving and high-impact train wrecks such as the pandemic itself, or to a much more infectious variant.

Are the New Strains Really More Infectious?

Research shows that the UK strain is anywhere from 56% to 70% more infectious, meaning each individual person who gets the new strain infects 56-70% more people than the older COVID strain. The new variant quickly came to dominate the old strain of COVID in Southeast England, going from less than 1% of all tested samples at the start of November to over two-thirds by mid-December.

The South African strain appears even more infectious than the new UK strain. It came to dominate the country quickly: first found in October, it was responsible for over 80% of all new COVID cases by the end of December. To corroborate this research, let’s compare new daily COVID cases per million people over the last several months.

COVID-19 has given the public a re-appreciation of leaders and organizations pushing through previously unimagined challenges to continue to advance their business, protect employees, and improve their service to customers. During World War II, a little-known naval battle between the Imperial Japanese and the United States off the island of Samar in the Philippines serves as an unlikely example of determination and innovation for organizations seeking to do business well during COVID-19.

The naval battle off Samar, the Philippines occurred on October 25, 1944. The battle was between an inferior United States force of small ships pitted against the superior, main battle line destroyers and battleships of Imperial Japan. The Japanese fleet out-numbered, out-gunned, out-armored, and out-manned the US Navy. Yet, over hours of ferocious fighting, the US Navy battled their small ships incredibly well and the engagement concluded in a draw, a virtual military impossibility. The intensity and fury of the US Navy’s defense against the attacking Japanese convinced the Japanese to withdraw instead of attacking vulnerable American troop ships poised to invade the Philippines.

This battle, one of the last “traditional” ship-to-ship battles of World War II, demonstrated what a trained, well led, and motivated naval force could achieve under utterly impossible conditions. The business lessons from the Battle off Samar apply in multiple ways for businesses and organizations today in the world of COVID-19.

Adapt Your Actions to Succeed When the Chips Are Down. The mission of the small US Navy ships was to protect a fleet of aircraft carriers that were supporting the US invasion of the Philippines. The Japanese intended to attack the aircraft carriers as their first objective in their campaign to stop the American invasion. The US Navy ships were surprised by the size and intensity of the Japanese attack from the very start of the naval battle. What eventually saved the day was that the American sailors were well trained in both their primary duties and to assume the duties of others. The elevated level of training and job adaptation was a critical element in the ability of the US Navy to withstand the deadly Japanese attacks. The training of the crews to rapidly adapt to changes was essential.

Adopt New Technology for The Most Important Systems. The attacking Japanese ships relied on visual direction systems to fire their largest guns. The Americans had developed, tested, and improved the use of radar detection and tracking gun systems that allowed them higher accuracy and higher rates of fire. During the battle, the US Navy ships immediately started making smoke to make it harder for the Japanese to find the correct range for their guns. In a combination of technology and training, one of the American ships was able to fire 325, 5″ shells in 35 minutes at the larger Japanese ships with high on target accuracy. The American adaptation of “new” technology into gunnery systems was a crucial advantage that allowed the smaller American warships to hold off the Japanese.

Be Prepared to Redefine Your Vision of Victory. In late 1944, the US Navy was becoming used to seeing itself as the “always” victorious force in sea battles against Japan. The speed, intensity, professionalism, strength, and surprise of the Japanese attack quickly made the defending US Navy adapt their attitude from victory to survival. US Navy leadership, technology, and training made the US Navy quickly adapt to a defensive position and strike hard against the attacking Japanese. This ability to redefine their objectives from success to survival was a critical leadership element that allowed the US Navy to fight to a draw.

Expect the Enemy to Do the Unexpected Very Well. The US Navy was initially surprised at the speed, coordination, size, and surprise of the large Japanese force. At this stage in World War II, the Japanese Navy had become increasingly challenged to execute large, coordinated naval attacks. This failure was a critical lapse for the US Navy to underestimate a seasoned, well trained, and determined foe. Business always needs to respect, anticipate, war game, and plan to expect the absolute best from their opponents and to expect the opposition will do the unexpected very well.

Great Leadership Attacks Despite Danger and Uncertainty. The attacking Japanese were surprised as the small US ships turned to attack them. The smaller US ships displaced 1,800 tons against the largest Japanese ship, the Yamato, which displaced 72,000 tons – a military equivalent of a toddler fighting Mike Tyson. The US Navy leaders knew that there was no running away from this great enemy fleet, the danger was coming no matter what. The Navy leaders also knew that if they ran, there would never be a chance to win. Instead, they chose to attack into great danger. At the end of the day, by not allowing the Japanese to win, the US Navy was able to create a hard-fought draw.

The Battle of Samar in during World War II is a lesson from the US Navy for all organizational leaders of how to adapt and “fight” their organizations through the challenges of COVID-19. High levels of individual training, the instrumental adaptation of new technology, junior leaders that took initiative to assume higher responsibility, and the ability to respect but still aggressively fight a dangerous enemy were all keys from the US Navy in World War II that apply equally today against COVID-19.

Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie is the author of two books: Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success. Chad’s brand message is that organizations and individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective. Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management. In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including Union Pacific, General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics. He has been published over 320 different articles in over 170 separate publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.

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