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What Leadership Looks Like in a Pandemic


· Leadership

The simplest definition of leadership is the art of motivating others to act towards achieving a common goal coupled with the ability to make others want to follow you. To lead is to inspire trust and set an example for others to follow. The reaction and response by the Trump administration to the onset of the coronavirus infection in the U.S. is a prime example of what leadership is not.


Learn from Africa


The White House could learn quite a bit from Africa about what leadership in the face of a pandemic looks like. As the Wednesday, March 11, 2020 CNN reports, African nations like Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Kenya are examples of what preparedness, preventiveness and public information campaigns look like and what it means to be proactive in benefit of the citizens you are supposed lead and the nation you represent.


While African governments have used the best practices and lessons learned from dealing with the 2014-2016 outbreak, the U.S. government has shown poor reactivity, a lagging and bungled response, limited information and confusing messaging, and poor planning. In short, there has been little leadership and a lot of bad government. Instead of protecting America’s health, President Trump seems more interested in doing image damage control by downplaying the problem and creating an alternative reality, trashing facts through meandering remarks that are confusing and have everyone on edge, and spending his time on Twitter to spew wrath against practical problem solvers.


Poor leadership leads to a negative difference


Trump’s unreal leadership, as I wrote in a previous article (“Unreal Leadership is Dangerous to your Health”), has definitely made a difference, but not the one being sought from a real leader. In the face of a pandemic, an enlightened leader short circuits denial, stays calm and focused, stays flexible and open to innovation, has a virtual war room up and running immediately, communicates clearly and kindly, becomes a trusted source of information throughout the crisis, and thinks of others, not just him/herself, while putting trust in science.


Instead, we have a leader who abdicates his expected “agency” to make a positive difference and doesn’t seem to have any idea that generic crisis plans need to be tailored to the specific situation at hand in order to plan for every contingency possible; who instead of facing probabilities, starts trying to turn them in his favor by peddling misinformation and false hopes; generates disbelief, instead of calm rationality; can’t seem to understand the difference between fake and real science; and creates uneasiness and a heightened fear of the unknown through verbal incontinence that evidences a limited humanity.


It’s not as if there is no available knowledge or guidance about how to prepare or deal with an epidemic or pandemic, such as the one we are currently experiencing with the new coronavirus. In February 2018, former Deputy Director of FEMA, Richard Serino broke down his method of preparedness into 10 manageable best practices as the 2018 flu season got underway. It’s highly recommended that government officials, especially the President and his White House staff, revisit them at the height of what is now a pandemic to which the Trump administration has shown a botched response, because they are ever so applicable to regain leadership in the fight against our current disease outbreak:

  • Regardless of what type of organization you are a part of, make sure to encourage staff to stay home if they are sick.
  • When addressing the public about a potential outbreak, ensure that you are transparent and honest with your communications. Inform them of everything you know and don’t be afraid to admit that there may be things you do not know yet, but you are working towards finding answers.
  • Giving action items, such as coughing into your elbow instead of your hand, helps the public feel a sense of control over the situation and reduces panic, or maintain social distance.
  • Remind the public that your knowledge of the situation will change as it continues to unfold. Known information may change and ‘unknowns’ may get answered as an outbreak progresses.
  • Provide clear policies, but be transparent about changes. Public health policies should be in place, but may need to change as an outbreak progresses. If a policy needs to be amended, be clear as to why the change is necessary or beneficial.
  • Have a trusted, local expert provide communications. People are more likely to follow directions if they are provided by someone they recognize or trust as an expert in public health (italics added).
  • Before any outbreak ever occurs, ensure that local officials in all departments already have a good relationship with public health officials so cross-department communication is easy and trusted.
  • All members of a public health department should coordinate on what information they are broadcasting. Additionally, information should flows sideways to other departments so they can also provide the same message if asked (i.e. fire department, police department, etc). Leaders in other departments will also have other conduits for sharing information such as neighborhood watch programs, faith organizations, etc.

Practice best practices not la-la land public relations

Best practices, such as the ones above, are practices that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective. Strong, effective leadership uses best practices to balance focus on the big and the small, build cross-functional teams that increase collaboration and improve performance, practice empowering delegation to enable others to act and avoid battling phantom antagonists.

However, as the March 10, 2020 head editorial in The Washington Post points out, what we are now seeing is “that democracy can produce its own version of leadership failure.” Indeed, the Trump White House exemplifies America’s own version of China’s failure: insufficient proactivity and a flailing response, squandered opportunities to contain the virus, ignorance and denial of established facts, and a President’s La-La Land type of focus on public relations.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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