Vice Admiral prepares for completion of mission and record of “lessons learned” for the future


Seven months after taking over the coordination of the task force for vaccination against covid-19, Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo is preparing to hand over the key to one of the biggest emergency operations ever – a massive vaccination of the Portuguese population in a time record.

His leadership style, his camouflage, the simple words he used to explain complex issues were the most effective response to the mistrust that persisted for too long, when the Portuguese witnessed the start of a confused vaccination process and where abuses and favours began to spread.

Mission accomplished, Gouveia e Melo will leave the “lessons learned” for future memory and deliver to the Ministry of Health a guide of all the steps that were taken, the organization, priorities and their own impressions.

According to the official source of the task force, it is still the intention of this team to put a text on Wikipedia when the mission ends.

But this indisputable success – measurable, for example, by the fact that 70% of the population was vaccinated before the expected date and that it placed Portugal at the top of the countries with the most vaccinated people (the task force’s forecast estimates that between the 3rd and the 4th week of September reaches 85% of the population fully vaccinated) – was it due to just one person?

A magnetic field

Does the “script” you intend to leave serve for other public bodies? Is this leadership style replicable? What is the secret of this leadership’s success? And what did the vice admiral himself learn; a career military man who had never led a civilian operation?

On the phone in the car, returning from a visit to the vaccination centre in Guarda, last Wednesday, Gouveia e Melo answers the last question: “I learned to work in a less hierarchical system, in which the negotiation process is the essence, which usually doesn’t happen in the military. I learned to negotiate until exhaustion because that negotiation is the glue of the entire operation. I negotiated and discussed ideas until there was almost group consensus. From then on, things work as one magnetic field and all the particles go in that direction. I used this expression a lot of magnetic field – which orients the system’s particles in the same direction and you don’t even need to give orders.”

The task force , it should be remembered, has the mission of coordinating and articulating the various government departments involved in the preparation and execution of the strategic planning of the vaccination process, in its logistical, executive and communication aspects.

It was necessary to speak frequently with an extensive list of entities – municipalities, the five Regional Health Administrations (ARS), the General Directorate of Health (DGS), INFARMED (National Authority for Medicines and Health Products), the Service of Use Common of Hospitals (SUCH), the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority, the Central Administration of the Health System, the National Institute of Health Doctor Ricardo Jorge, the SPMS (Shared Services of the Ministry of Health), the GNR and the PSP.

Gouveia e Melo worked as a kind of catalyst that united everyone with the ultimate goal of obtaining the desired results, motivating each one to assume their responsibilities. “From the beginning I said that I wanted the accountability of the actors. Each one has to feel involved, has to realize that it counts for the whole, for good and for bad. An accountable actor is much more active. This is the most important key “, points out.

Tight control of rules

When he took office in February he was faced with a discredited system and his priorities were to make the immunization plan credible – reinforcing the structure of planning and control of the entire process.

The General Staff of the task force was joined by elite military personnel (mathematicians, doctors, analysts, strategic experts) from the Army, the Air Force and the Navy, just over three dozen, and followed the three objectives defined by the vice-admiral: save lives (age criteria became the system default); resilience of the State (vaccination of professionals, such as police, military (about 10% of the population); liberating the economy.

Throughout the process, there was an exhaustive control of the execution of the guidelines, through mechanisms of permanent verification of the results of the process. It could not be otherwise, for example, the order to close the Porto flare – failures were identified due to non-compliance with pre-defined rules and it could never be reopened without everything being clarified.

The task force coordinator recognizes that this model “may be replicated in extreme cases”, but “hardly in normal situations”.

Even so, he stresses, “there are things that have been done that can be integrated into institutions, such as having reliable indicators of reality that allow for informed decisions, facing problems in an agnostic way. There are political goals, but then there are concrete problems that they demand decisions and results, they are not about ideologies, they are technical issues. The objectives are defined by the policy, but then they must be competent people to do it and not mix the two.”

The material inheritance for the National Health Service (SNS) – and also for other public entities, so wish – of these seven months of a task force against the clock is an unprecedented gift.

“All the information systems we created will become available, the NHS database has been updated and revised, and everything is more structured. Centralized solutions were developed that ended the entropy between the location (health centers) and the central. The Open House model with password can be replicated for all public administration services. The traffic lights system also allows people to see if there are many or few people before going to any service. All these solutions that we have created are independent of the databases and can be used by any service. In the case of SUCH, it had a total upgrade, updated, thought in terms of economy of scale, and selected the best routes. It is a new service that is capable of being a great agent of the State for all public hospitals”, guarantees Gouveia e Melo, giving some examples.

Leader profile x-ray

The leadership of this submariner who emerged into the spotlight has been, moreover, watched with attention by some of the greatest Portuguese experts in behavioural and leadership in organizations.

Confidence, genuineness, discipline, communication skills are some of the key words that characterize it. But they stress that leadership is not a person, but a process to which various circumstances contribute.

The vice admiral had a very clear objective to fulfil and that helped. His technical competence, mission orientation, very typical of the military and his great communication skills were decisive – the option for the camouflage itself was an element of strategic communication, which meant: while we’re at war, this is what I’m going to wear!”, asserts Miguel Pina e Cunha, director of the Leadership for Impact Knowledge Centre at the School of Business and Economics (SBE) at Universidad Nova.