Coronavirus test: What makes a good leader in times of crisis?

Why We Wrote This

When faced with uncertainty, people look to leadership for information, reassurance, and guidance. Faced with a global pandemic, a wide range of leaders are stepping up to fill those roles in different ways.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo addresses New Yorkers during a news conference at the Jacob Javits Center which will house a temporary hospital, March 24, 2020, in New York. Governor Cuomo has adopted a “buck stops here” tone with his constituents in regard to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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President Donald Trump’s critics have spent years calling him a wannabe autocrat. Now, amid crisis, these same critics want him in some ways to be more autocratic: Use all the levers of power to urgently ramp up production of medical supplies. Call for a national lockdown.

But the answer isn’t so simple. Taking centralized control of pandemic response could increase “the likelihood of abuses and inefficiencies,” warns constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley. In contrast, Obama Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sees the need for strong, centralized leadership. He can’t understand why someone who “calls himself a wartime president is not prepared to fully mobilize the entire country.”

Yet already, President Trump is looking to ease social distancing guidelines in just a few weeks, in defiance of public health experts. His goal: rescue the economy. 

At heart, the pandemic has profoundly tested America’s multitiered system of governance, surfacing different models of leadership. Assertive governors, such as Andrew Cuomo of New York, are earning plaudits, while Ron DeSantis of Florida faced scorn for resisting statewide mandates. Experts say what matters most in leadership are key qualities: clarity, foresight, empathy, and ability to adapt.

“I alone can fix it,” Donald Trump famously asserted at the 2016 Republican National Convention, referring to “the system.” 

The arena erupted in cheers. Today, amid a national crisis, the script has flipped. In key ways President Trump has deferred to governors, and hesitated to use the powers at his disposal – both formal and informal. 

The moment is laden with irony. Since taking office, Mr. Trump’s critics have called him a wannabe autocrat as he blew through norms and pushed the boundaries of the Constitution’s checks and balances. 

Now, at a time when a president might be expected to use executive authority to the max, these same critics want him to be more autocratic. Call for a national lockdown, some say. Order the production and acquisition of medical supplies, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded to the president, as the state faces a surge of coronavirus cases.

But the answer isn’t so simple. 

Taking centralized control of pandemic response is “an invitation to concentrate not just the power of the White House, but also increase the likelihood of abuses and inefficiencies,” says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional scholar at The George Washington University Law School. 

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

Patchwork response

Each state has its own “pandemic profile,” he notes – including density of population, topography, and climate – and that means state and local authorities are better equipped to understand local needs. 

What about a nationwide lockdown, as announced this week in the United Kingdom and even India, with its 1.3 billion people?

“That gets into a gray area. The president can’t even suspend habeas corpus without approval of Congress,” says Professor Turley, referring to the constitutional right against illegal confinement. “So if you’re going to have a true quarantine, you’d need enhanced federal police powers.”

But the president does have the bully pulpit. He could urge all Americans to stay home, and pressure governors and mayors to issue curfews or “shelter in place” orders. Mr. Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency,” announced March 13, frees up federal resources to address the crisis, not command action from the populace. Ditto his activation Sunday of the National Guard for the three most-affected states, which he stressed does not mean an imposition of martial law.  

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, March 24, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. President Trump's call Tuesday to “open up” the country by April 12 has triggered alarm among some governors.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration triggered the Defense Production Act for the first time to help states access virus testing kits and face masks. But some states are begging for more sweeping action, on the order of President Franklin Roosevelt’s use of private industry during World War II. 

States have also been begging for help in preventing bidding wars for supplies, such as N95 masks, that have driven up costs in some cases eight-fold. On Monday, Mr. Trump signed an executive order aimed at preventing price gouging and hoarding of critical supplies.  

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argues that strong, centralized leadership is essential at this critical moment. 

“I find it difficult to understand why someone who calls himself a wartime president was not prepared to fully mobilize the entire country in order to confront this crisis,” says Mr. Panetta, who served under President Barack Obama. “There’s no question we’ve had mixed messages coming from Washington.”

Indeed, President Trump is already looking to ease guidelines on social distancing in a matter of weeks, not months, in defiance of public health experts. His goal: to rescue the economy. 

“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” Mr. Trump has said. 

Governors expressed alarm over his call Tuesday to “open up” the country by Easter on April 12. Though under the 10th Amendment, it is states that have the power to lift restrictions on people’s activities, not the federal government. 

At heart, COVID-19 has profoundly tested America’s multi-tiered system of governance, and surfaced different models of leadership. Assertive, proactive governors, such as Mr. Cuomo and Mike DeWine of Ohio, are earning plaudits, while Ron DeSantis of Florida has faced criticism for resisting a statewide shutdown. Though he did order a 14-day quarantine for those flying into the state from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. 

Governor Cuomo is a Democrat and Governors DeWine and DeSantis are Republicans. But party is irrelevant in assessments of leadership skill. What matters most are key qualities and principles, experts say: clarity, foresight, empathy, managing expectations, and – maybe most important – ability to adapt. 

“Leadership is situational, but some things are inviolate,” says retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command, now at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. “During good times, you have to establish trust, then it’s easier to ask people to do things when there’s a crisis.” 

General West also stresses that important information and good ideas can come from anyone on the team, and can help the leader “see around corners.” Several years ago, she heard of a potential medical threat in West Africa, and took her information to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. 

It proved to be the early days of the Ebola outbreak. General Dempsey put together a task force, and when President Obama asked what could be done, the joint chiefs chairman was ready to respond. 

The Army defines leadership, General West says, as “the process of influencing people by providing direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. That means anyone can be a leader.”

Matilda’s Law

Of all the leaders who have come to prominence in the crisis, most compelling may be Governor Cuomo of New York. Now in his third term, the elder son of late Gov. Mario Cuomo is hardly a fresh presence – or even, in normal times, a particularly warm one.  

But his daily press conferences, an odyssey of info-packed PowerPoint slides and personal reflections, have become appointment TV (or livestream) for those who want to see a “buck stops here” leader in action and a dose of compassion. 

“If someone wants to blame someone, blame me,” Mr. Cuomo said March 22 in announcing statewide business closures aimed at thwarting the virus. 

His elderly mother, Matilda Cuomo, and three grown daughters have become stand-ins for every baby boomer’s aging parents and young-adult children as he expresses concern for their welfare. Mr. Cuomo’s rules for behavior, aimed at protecting vulnerable populations, are dubbed “Matilda’s Law.”  

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Trump – both with “tough guy from Queens” facades – had developed a rapport during the crisis, but clashed Tuesday amid Mr. Cuomo’s desperate plea for ventilators and other equipment. Until then, Mr. Trump had prided himself on his dealings with governors from both sides of the aisle during the crisis. 

Then there’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the president’s coronavirus task force. (He’s advised every president since Ronald Reagan.) He has been a reassuring presence at Trump press conferences, known for his diplomatic corrections of presidential pronouncements. 

“He goes his own way. He has his own style,” Dr. Fauci said of Mr. Trump in a recent interview with Science Magazine. “But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say.”

Often, in fact, leadership consists of good “followership,” i.e., being a team player. 

Like Dr. Fauci, Vice President Mike Pence has earned praise for his calming, almost preacher-like presence, as he stays on-message and never outshines the president. 

In the president’s Cabinet, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been another standout, working across the aisle effectively with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they hashed out a massive stimulus deal to rescue the economy. Senate leaders announced an agreement early Wednesday morning, and the chamber aims to vote later in the day, after ironing out some last-minute issues.  

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, is no fan of Mr. Trump. But he says the problems with the handling of this crisis are by no means all the president’s fault. 

Going back decades, “we’ve seen an increase in the number of significant, highly visible breakdowns of government,” Professor Light says. His explanation: “We just have not done major repairs of our government systems, our technologies, our early warning, our civil service … for a good 50 years.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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