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August 11, 2020

Leadership in Extreme Disruption

Case studies close to home.

Imagine you’re a leader and don’t have a clue what to do. How do you make decisions in an unprecedented situation? What people and data do you rely on? How do you keep the respect of the people you’re leading when many of your decisions are going to turn out to have been wrong?

Let’s start with a simple case. You and your faithful follower (ff) are in a pitch-black space. You can talk to each other; you can touch each other; but you can’t see anything. There’s no good reason to think you’re going to be rescued; you’re first decision is to try to find a way out. Doing nothing is not an option; that’s rule #1.

You could say to ff “we’ll go this way; I think it’s the best way.” But you have no reason to think that, so there’s no point in saying it. Better to say “we’ll try one direction at a time and see what we find.” Then, if two steps take you into a wall, you’ll have learned something instead of having squandered points from your credibility bank. Rule #2 is don’t pretend to know more than you do.

“Shall we walk or crawl?” asks ff.

“Let’s crawl,” you say; “no telling where there may be a hole.” You crawl for a long time; your knees are sore; you are slowly building mental maps of the space but is taking forever; you don’t find any holes.

“Based on our experience,” you say, “we’d be able to make better progress by walking. But I could be wrong.” Rule #3 is never, never be afraid to say you were wrong. You add to the credibility bank.

You start to walk and promptly stumble into a hole which fortunately isn’t deep enough to do more than bruise your body and ego. “I was wrong,” you say again (having already allowed for that possibility one paragraph ago). “Let’s walk but with one of us in front and holding hands for safety.” I don’t know whether you and ff will escape but you’re doing a good job leading, the plan is evolving, and you still have a follower.

Back in the real covid-ridden world, who’s been doing a good job leading and who hasn’t?

Donald Trump’s done a bad job of both crisis and conventional leadership. He did some things right: shutting off arrivals from China early was correct; daily briefings were a good idea but the execution was terrible; multiple parallel incentives for drug companies to develop vaccines quickly is good traditional leadership. He was dead wrong about the impact although his early guess (rule #2) – “not gonna be a problem” – was not that different than what the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were then saying. But Trump never got around to admitting he was wrong (rule #3). Awarding himself a ten for an adequate response cost many credibility points; saying “five and we’re trying hard to do better” would’ve left him in a better position to lead subsequently – but that’s not his style. It wasn’t Trump’s fault we weren’t ready for the first wave; no one has accused him of burning stockpiles of masks, ventilators and test kits left by his predecessors. Not being ready for the summer resurgence was an absolute failure of traditional leadership; it should cost him the presidency. Advocating masks with a wink and then not wearing one is atrocious. On the other hand, a national mask mandate except for federal venues and federal jurisdictions like interstate commerce would be clearly unconstitutional.

Dr. Fauci got off to a good start admitting to a congressional committee that the US was not ready when it should’ve been. His credibility and ability to lead have been enhanced by his willingness to contradict his boss. His early prediction that the virus wouldn’t be a major problem was incorrect although it was conventional wisdom when he said it. He should just admit this instead of evading the question when it comes up. The evasion makes him vulnerable to his enemies in the White House.  Fauci reversed himself on masks as the evidence changed; that’s a good thing except he also says he didn’t want people to hoard masks when they were in short supply for medical people. The suspicion that he bends his facts to get us to do what he thinks is good for us makes him a less effective advocate for mask-wearing now than he might have been had he told us the whole truth all along.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has talked a good game. His well-run daily briefings gained in comparison to the President’s pathetic ramblings. He initially underestimated the impact like almost everyone else. Once he understood the danger, he was brutally frank about it to point of exaggeration. His prediction that what was happening in New York (actually the New York City metropolitan area) would happen soon in the rest of the country was fortunately wrong – and may have reduced the willingness of the rest of the country to send even more people and supplies to NY. Cuomo’s decision to send covid-infected patients back to nursing home to reduce the stress on hospitals was catastrophically wrong. It is one of the reasons why New York’s covid death toll remains much higher than any other state even though some states have now surpassed it in number of confirmed cases.  The squabbling between Cuomo and DeBlasio is infantile and harmful to both their ability to lead and their constituents.

My prize for good leadership goes to Vermont Governor Phil Scott I don’t think I’m just overcome by home-state loyalty. We do have the lowest infection and positivity rates in the country; we have no one currently hospitalized; we’ve had just two deaths in the last six weeks. Part of these results are certainly because we’re rural and not densely populated; but we are also less than five driving hours from the epicenters of the early New England wave. The early shutdown of the hospitality industry hurt the people who own and work in our hospitality industry greatly but may have saved us from having our hospitals overwhelmed and may make a winter ski season possible. Credit (and blame) for that decision belongs to Scott. He hasn’t tried to avoid the blame and he has been modest about accepting credit. Leaves him in a good position to lead (and get re-elected) going forward.

Phil’s briefings, never quite daily, were not only appropriately low-key but a model for letting both the experts and the government leaders speak directly to the people of Vermont. All of them, particularly Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith, are quick to admit what they don’t know. Mistakes get admitted such as not more closely monitoring the covid testing protocols at out-of-state prisons to which Vermont prisoners are sent (there has been a large outbreak there).

Scott resisted making masks mandatory for most Vermonters for the very good reason that there was not a good enforcement method so, voluntary compliance was needed. He switched his position when 1) voluntary compliance proved not to be what he hoped it would be; 2) it became clear that students returning from out-of-state as well as tourists will increase the risk; 3) the importance of reopening k-12 schools made other risks less tolerable [nb. I still think we’ll need some enforcement in some places]. Changing your mind when the facts warrant is good leadership. Don’t let your spin-doctors talk you out of simply saying “I learned things and I changed my mind.”

Leadership from congress in this pandemic. Fuhgettabouttit!

And Joe Biden is MIA. His silence may be good electoral strategy while Trump blusters and splutters but it doesn’t set Biden up well to lead as next President.

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