Leadership in a Crisis

March 26, 2020

Management legend Peter Drucker once wrote about leadership that at all times, but particularly in crises, good leaders always first ask two questions:

  1. What needs to be done?
  2. What can, and should I do about it?

Implicit in his statement was the assumption that leaders have as their motive, achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of their followers. That implies honesty and integrity, which sadly, don’t appear to apply to our current leaders.

When the motive is different, as we are witnessing today, the answers to those two crucial questions change dramatically, and therefore so do the outcomes of their decisions.

For Trump, the answers are 1) get re-elected to continue using the Presidency to feed my ego and enrich myself, and 2) includes: lie about the seriousness, rate of spread, and government actions related to the pandemic. Keep infected Americans off-shore on a cruise ship so “the numbers look good.”

What about Joe Biden? 1) Get elected President no matter what. 2) Use the crisis to leverage my election chances. Biden, a 40-year veteran of Establishment politics characteristically applied his ‘finger-to-the-wind’ practices by adopting last minute the policies of some of his competitors, in order to convey a human empathy that his prior policies and actions did not include.1 While the answer to question 2 may indirectly benefit the public, it would merely be   circumstantial. Disappear for a week during the height of the pandemic, then host a feeble address offering only vacuous platitudes, no specific solutions.

Note that both these perspectives, as lenses of their leadership responsibilities, are myopic and self-serving. Trump’s solipsistic sociopathy leaves him completely oblivious to the needs of the people. Biden will flip-flop as needed to ensure his own solid place in the game; if the people benefit from that, it’s an incidental plus.

It is naïve to think that this type of behaviour has not always existed in society in varying degrees. But is has usually been the purview of lesser leaders, limited by their lower station in the damage they can inflict. Our problem today is that we have permitted and elevated such weak leaders to the highest positions in the country, at a time of serious crisis.

Lincoln once said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” I would modify that to say “give him/her power, then add a crisis.” This pandemic is pulling back the curtain on our wizards of Oz. The silver lining is that it provides the public with a first hand opportunity to witness leadership decisions and behaviors that cannot be lied or PR spun away. You either resolve the crisis in a successful manner, or you don’t. It places character flaws on display for all to observe.

How are our two top leaders doing so far?

Let’s close with another Lincoln quote that our leaders hopefully will read: “you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

1 https://newrepublic.com/article/156905/coronavirus-test-joe-bidens-ideas

Michael Darmody is a leadership consultant and executive coach. More detail on the challenges we currently face can be found in his new book The Boiling Frog: How Complacency and Ignorance Created Our Leadership Crisis and What We Can Do About It. 

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