Much has been written in academic and trade publications on leadership.  This is a topic which is always current and relevant. Harvard Business Review has dedicated a Special Summer 2020 Issue on “How to LEAD in a Time of CRISIS.” This is indeed the biggest crisis facing America in recent memory.

With death attributed to COVID-19 exceeding the 100,000 mark, it is not partisan politics to question how leaders at the highest level, particularly President Trump, have managed the greatest healthcare crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic. Spanish flu killed millions, but people did not expect or get the leadership from President Woodrow Wilson. In fact, he got reelected without even once mentioning the flu in his campaign appearances and this may be because general population at that time did not consider healthcare as a federal government responsibility, nor did they expect much from the President. Furthermore, at that time apathy to flu issue might have had something to do with the class and race character of the diseased and the deceased as well – most deaths from the scourge were either poor or non-white or both and thus have had virtually no impact on the political behavior of the elites nor of the media which used to be run almost entirely by the White supremacist elites. Besides, public health was not a government matter those days.

Much has changed since then. We are at a different time with far more government involvement in public life. These days, through regulations, resources and ownership exemplified by  Social Security Administration, Medicare, FEMA(Federal Emergency Management Agency) , CDC(Center for Disease Control) , CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and FDA(Federal Food & Drug Administration) government in US has assumed far greater responsibility in public health than ever before .

Almost 18% of the economy is directly connected to healthcare and it is also the employers of millions of people. In the United States healthcare is far more influenced by governmental policies than perhaps any other sector of the economy. Healthcare can have profound impact on the other sectors of the economy as demonstrated by the “lockdown” of the entire country brought about by COVID-19.

Sadly, by all accounts the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic stands out as an utter failure of leadership. During normal times, it is a tough challenge to be a successful leader of a country like US. During a crisis, particularly one without recent precedence, the challenges are even more daunting.

The qualities that one looks for in the leader managing a crisis are simple – transparency, assumption of responsibility, decisive action, admitting mistakes and correcting actions and uniting people. Transparency requires objective data. I don’t think there are issues with the actual number of people dead but ingenuous politicians are already questioning whether the cause of the death was really by COVID-19. This is nothing but a heinous attempt to avoid accountability.

Once the pandemic hit New York in a big way, a series of missteps were unleashed on the country starting with the President, governors and mayors. The country was “closed” to China but according to New York Times, almost 45000 travelers originating from China came in after the “ban.” European ban followed but with enough of a window for an additional 100,000 COVID-19 exposed population to come in. It is not, therefore, a surprise that the New York, being the principal “gateway city” to the USA faced the greatest threat of invasion of the Covid-19 “virus/bacteria.” Sadly, New York was NOT ready.

On other fronts missteps and mistakes followed. “Assumption of responsibility” is one of the key characteristics of a good leader, something that President Trump miserably failed to demonstrate.

Without leadership from the top, USA, a well-resourced and scientifically most well equipped country floundered in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic behaving like a was like a rudderless ship. It was chaotic.

Indeed, this country does not lack essential medical supplies, but a crisis was created with each state or even city bidding for the same resources even though they faced different needs at different times. A decisive leader, decisiveness being one of the attributes of successful leaders, would have “requisitioned” all the needed resources and directed them to wherever they were needed the most. There were occasional flashes of that when the Army Corps of Engineers, at the direction of the President, put up special hospitals in Javits Center in New York and McCormick Place in Chicago in matter of days.

Working your way out of a crisis requires a clear path and a plan with the leader uniting all sections of the people and stakeholders. This is one area where the President Trump once again failed this nation. From the beginning there was a split between the scientists (who were laying out the ‘worst case scenario’) and political advisors (who were scared that the only winning issue foe the President – the state of the economy – was about to go away). In the beginning the President was publicly hoping that the COVID-19 would simply disappear but operationally his staff was putting in place the worst-case scenario policies with inconsistent application and poor implementation. It is now clear that there was no need for the entire country “lockdown”. The rationale for infusion of money to keep the economy going without proper checks and balances will be debated for years to come. For the folly of the leadership of this generation, the next generation will be paying the debt for much longer.

The saddest spectacle is the political division on scientific evidence. Notwithstanding his penchant for witch-hunting and blaming others for his own failures that consistently detract focus from the main issue, President’s stubbornness on not wearing a mask, which is being emulated by his followers has now put hundreds and thousands in real risk of getting infected by this deadly virus.

Every scientific recommendation is sadly being analyzed in political terms. This is a serious problem because, in the absence of a vaccine, total cooperation among the public is necessary to keep the infection from spreading or coming back with vengeance.

COVID-19 or any future mutated version of the virus or for that matter in a major crisis that the country may encounter in future, it is evident that US would need a different kind of leadership than what President Trump has given to the American people and indeed the world. Future leadership ought to be more mature, inclusive and strategic in thinking.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or “America First” will need to be a bit more resounding than the beating of an empty drum. Future US leadership must adjust itself to work within the country with states and outside, with other nations despite their differences because a pandemic such as COVID-19 is not affecting the health of people but the economies of the world, without considering the borders. Therefore, the pandemic and its risks – health and economic – warrant cooperation, both within and across and not conflict.

Since Mr. Donald Trump is the president, he must change his way. How about him taking a refresher course on MGMT 101 for CRISIS MANAGEMENT – transparency, honesty, cooperation, decisiveness, accountability, credibility and finally assumption of responsibility.

Although little late, it still may not be a bad idea to give Mr. Trump a lesson or two in crisis management by a qualified teacher, just that  the challenge would be not so much to find a qualified professor to teach the course but to get the pupil in question to listen which is fundamental to all learning, something that this particular student does not seem to be at peace with.

 


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