A crisis can be illuminating. It can strip away the façade of what we say we believe and expose our true natures. We can use a crisis to step into being our best selves. Or we can take a different route, such as acting out of cold-hearted self-interest to stockpile more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and attempt to profit from a pandemic.
Along with illumination, a crisis can bring a moment of reckoning. In 2020, America is coming face-to-face with the dire consequences of a well-funded campaign that began in the 1950s to denigrate, hollow-out, and ultimately destroy good and competent government along with the maintenance of a strong and empathetic social contract. Our current crisis has brought those decisions front and center. That reckoning is at the heart of Anne Applebaum‘s recent article in The Atlantic magazine: The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff.
Moments of stark illumination and national reckoning also tell us a great deal about our leaders. When it comes to leadership in a crisis, it turns out — surprise, surprise — that competency, credibility and empathy matter. Proven incompetence, unprecedented lying, and a total lack of empathy are recipes for disaster. While he stands as the most inexperienced, uninformed, and divisive president in history — who is using this crisis to show the world that he is uniquely unqualified for this position and this moment — Donald Trump is, however, not an anomaly. He is, rather, the culmination of a massive campaign to put a prominent role for government on the defensive in deference to the worship of money, the market, entertainment, and unfettered capitalism. When corporations become equal to, or more important than, people, we no longer have a true, functioning democracy. Instead, we have a serious problem.
Historian Joseph J. Ellis has been clear in describing this challenge. “Without a role for government,” he writes, “the American Dream becomes a realistic prospect only for the favored few.” Our founding fathers have also pointed to what happens when the few amass power at the expense of the public. In a dialogue about our second Gilded Age, Ellis writes,
“John Adams tried to tell us that outcome [of favoring the few] was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago. The two Republican presidents enshrined on Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, both insisted that the federal government was the ultimate arbiter of our common fate. Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest Democratic president, declared that the federal government was responsible for enforcing a social contract in which the right to pursue happiness included the right to a job. Something is not only missing but terribly wrong when these voices are absent from our national conversation.”
But it isn’t only historians and policy experts who recognize the dangers of poor, self-centered leadership. Marketing executive and author Robert Glazer has written about the need for steady hands in a crisis. Looking at the responses to the coronavirus in the business and political worlds, Glazer notes that the job of leaders requires a balancing act. “During a crisis,” he writes, “leaders have the difficult and opposing responsibilities of keeping their constituents and teams informed, while also compelling them to remain calm and focused on solutions.” In examining the leadership of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo* in recent weeks, Glazer was especially taken with Cuomo’s characterization of the three main causes of fear:
“Not receiving information: When people don’t have the information they want or need in an evolving crisis, they worry about what they don’t know and what is being kept from them….When leaders don’t communicate early, people will inevitably fill in the blanks themselves with rumors and fear.
People don’t trust the information they are receiving: Once a leader or organization loses credibility, almost anything they say will be questioned. It’s critical during a crisis to speak truthfully and carefully, and it’s potentially harmful to say something in the spirit of providing comfort that may be disproven later as the situation changes….
The information received is frightening: Sometimes leaders must give people information that will scare or upset them. In these cases, leaders must be factual and empathetic, and explain the why behind the information.”
In dealing with this moment in time, I believe we have two huge tasks ahead of us as a country.
The first task, of course, is to address the current coronavirus crisis in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our flawed and fractured health care system. That would be difficult even with competent hands at the wheel. Thankfully, the general public has responded to the pandemic with a sense of sacrifice and relative calm. As for leadership, we now have to count on elected officials and health experts at the state and local level to tie us over until the administration gets its act together. History can again be a guide. As was seen with the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, quick action by local authorities in St. Louis to close down public gatherings helped avert a spike in cases, where Philadelphia’s decision to hold a parade to honor returning war veterans exacerbated the rising case load and overwhelmed the local health care system. We need to address the current coronavirus crisis with competency, credibility, and empathy.
The second task, to return to Applebaum’s thesis, is to have a serious reckoning with the havoc the well-funded and long-standing attacks on competent government and support for unfettered capitalism have wrought. That reckoning will not be easy, and the parties, people, and businesses with power and money will fight any change to their privilege. In a country where our creedal convictions revolve around “we the people” and “all men are created equal,” it will be the people who have to show leadership. We will have to face the fear that, as Franklin Roosevelt so eloquently said, can be our greatest obstacle.
We have to vote as if our lives depend on it.
Because they do.
More to come…
*UPDATE: The section on Andrew Cuomo clearly did not age terribly well…which is one of the problems with blogs written in the moment using flawed individuals as exemplars of virtue. Many, in fact, knew of Cuomo’s flaws. As is often the case, those raising concerns were pushed aside in the rush to find examples of true leaders.