Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Leadership in a Time of Apocalypse

This is not THE Apocalypse, of course, in which case human leadership wouldn't matter any more anyway.  But it is certainly AN apocalypse, and so human leadership really does matter very much right now. On Sunday, I watched New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo's briefing on the current crisis. It really frightened me to hear how bad the situation is and how much worse it will likely get. But I was also edified and inspired to see my home-state governor showing such much needed leadership at this time. He is not alone of course, the governors of California and Washington have certainly been showing exemplary leadership, as I am sure have others who have received less attention. 

Some, however, have not met the challenge of leadership so well. The president seems to want to compare this crisis to a war, but then he fails to act as a wartime leader. (The most obvious recent example is his refusal to utilize the powers provided to the president by the 1950 Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to meet our national needs.) Someone who purports to be such an admirer of Britain's World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill would do well to follow the example of Churchill and of his American ally President Franklin Roosevelt in how they mobilized their entire societies to meet a deadly threat.

After Lincoln, FDR (photo) was perhaps the greatest American president, having demonstrated genuinely effective leadership in confronting the two great crises of the first half of the 20th-century - the Depression and World War II. Perhaps most importantly as a leader, he was able to persuade the American people to collective action, something that he could do because he was able to persuade people to trust him and have confidence in his leadership. Think back to his first "Fireside Chat" and how he got people who had been withdrawing money from the banks to be willing to deposit money in those same banks once again!

Leadership like that displayed by FDR has two critical components, which remain perennially relevant. The first is competent action that actually responds to real and immediate needs. Of course, no one - not FDR or any other leader - can do it all on his or her own. Indeed, thinking that one is omnicompetent (or trying to pretend to be) is actually counter-productive and a failure of leadership. What a competent leader does is recognize the competence and expertise of others and utilize them to implement public policy. Hence the importance of "deep state" governmental institutions, e.g,,  institutions like the National Security Council's Global Health Security Office, that was dismantled by the Trump White House.

But there is a second component to leadership that may matter more than competence, and that is empathy.  People have to believe that their leaders understand their situation and their needs and that they care. Hence the famous anecdote from FDR's funeral procession in 1945 when a reporter, encountering a particularly distraught man watching the funeral procession, asked him if he knew the President personally. "No, I did not know President Roosevelt, but he knew me," replied the man. That, of course, was what was critical to FDR's leadership. He could connect with citizens because he somehow understood and appreciated where people were at and conveyed that he cared. 

And therein lies our present problem when an administration displays a shocking lack of competence and the person at the top seems so notoriously lacking in empathy.

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