Big Ideas

Demanding Leadership for Demanding Times

Four years, that was the previous world record for the development of a vaccine. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla knew that was way too long. When his team brought him an aggressive plan to set a new record in producing their vaccine, he demanded that they increase it by at least 10x. “People are dying,” he said. The result is now being hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments in all of human history: the development of a viable vaccine in about nine months.

Albert Bourla CEO Pfizer COVID vaccine

For Bourla, it was nine months of refusing to accept limits or excuses, nine months of relentlessly demanding more, better, faster. For his team, it felt like nine months of “asking too much,” per a plea from his head of global manufacturing. It was nine months of an uncompromising and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “pushy CEO.”

For the aspiring leader, there are two key plot lines in this story: “people are dying” and “nine months.” Bourla has not built his career on being a domineering boss who pushes his team past their limits every day, in every situation. Faced with a critical, literally life-and-death situation, though, he was forceful, demanding, relentless.

Looking back on this historical, world-saving effort, Bourla said, “I’m a true believer that people, they don’t really know their limits. And usually, they have the tendency to underestimate what they can produce.”

Looking back on his 25-year career, we see a leader who has gained a reputation for both strong relationships and achievement. These two qualities work together. His friendly, supportive, enabling qualities create a reservoir of goodwill and trust that he can draw upon when demanding times require a demanding leader. Knowing that this was one of those times, Bourla drew on that reservoir, and drove his team to accomplish more than they believed possible, more than any team of vaccine developers had ever accomplished.

This balance, this ability to support, enable, and forge strong, trusting relationships, coupled with the ability to push, demand, and raise expectations, is a hallmark of the versatile leader. It is one of the dual abilities the Leadership Versatility Index is designed to assess and develop. And as this example dramatically demonstrates, it is a key to performing beyond expectations.

For a deeper dive into the story of Albert Bourla and Pfizer’s development of the COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with BioNTech, along with a more complete analysis of how forceful, demanding leadership works, check out our recent article in Talent Quarterly.

This example shows how versatile leaders can have a dramatic – even world-changing – impact.

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