D A Henderson Head of the WHO programme that eradicated smallpox
“I was reading about this guy who showed incredible leadership,” began Hugh, and I knew exactly who he meant. Although Hugh lives near Montreal and I live in London, both of us had locked on to a leadership story about Donald Ainslie Henderson, an epidemiologist who dealt with mind-bending complexity and uncertainty. Henderson, who died on August 19, 2016, led a global team that succeeded in eradicating smallpox in just ten years. Why had neither of us ever heard of Henderson?
A catalyst who proved the pessimists wrong
When Henderson became head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global smallpox eradication programme in 1966, the Director of the World Health Assembly and others expected him to fail. The story of how Ainslie achieved his goal is a case study in collaborative leadership. How did Henderson, or ‘D.A.’, as he was known, do it?
Henderson was a fox
Fortunately Henderson was a fox not a hedgehog. Henderson succeeded because he:
- led by example, regularly visiting countries affected by smallpox and building personal relationships to get things moving when governments were intransigent.
- understood the importance of communicating what his teams were doing and answered messages in three days before email was invented
- took measures to break down hierarchies and silos; for example he rotated staff in the field regardless of their seniority.
- implemented a number of different leadership strategies for reducing infections, including disease surveillance, vaccination and publicity.
Henderson saw himself as a catalyst
Although he only had a small leadership team in Geneva, Henderson knew how to get results through other people. Henderson had 200,000 locally recruited people worked for him in 50 countries. This is how Henderson succeeded in overcoming a long list of huge challenges including attacks by Ethiopian rebels on vaccinators, Bangladesh trucks that were too heavy to cross bamboo bridges, poor quality vaccines, civil war, floods, famine and funding.
The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was recorded in 1977. Everyone should know about Ainslie and his collaborators went about provided the leadership needed to achieve their goal.