Leadership in a Time of Plague

By Frank Blechman

President Donald J. Trump is correct about at least one thing. Maybe several things.

First, as a responsible public leader, he is right that he has to consider both physical and economic health when he makes policy.

Second, he is right when he says that our country is big and varied, and that one standard should not necessarily be applied everywhere at the same time.

Third, he is right that the best experts and the smartest bean counters cannot define the perfect time to act, whether that means imposing new restrictions in this time of plague, or loosening restrictions previously put in place.

Therefore, he is right when he says that as leader, he has to trust his “gut.” The weighing and balancing of complex and conflicting information can’t be resolved by mathematics alone. Advisers rarely agree. When we don’t have all the information we need, or too much, we either have to accept paralysis or we need to act in ways that are not completely rational.

Now, having said that, he is at the same time wrong about several things.

Mentioning various factors is not the same thing as considering them…. When he [Trump] doubles down, or changes direction 180 degrees, we have very little evidence that there has been any “thinking” behind those actions.

Mentioning various factors is not the same thing as considering them. Trump likes to say a thing first, see how others respond, and then decide if he wants to stick with it or not. When he doubles down, or changes direction 180 degrees, we have very little evidence that there has been any “thinking” behind those actions. They are not decisions. They are reactions, often to something said on Fox News.

Incoherent leadership is not good leadership. It may be impossible to construct an ironclad metric, but the absence of any metric makes it hard for others to follow. Leadership fundamentally requires followership. When the path zigs and zags, it is hard for even the most loyal to stay on target. Trump has contradicted himself so often that many, even news organizations–whose mission requires them to listen and report–have stopped paying attention.

Insults do not breed cooperation. Actually, he knows this well. When he wanted to get North Korea to tamp down nuclear threats, he used the strongest possible positive language. His current efforts to blame others for his actions and inactions (governors, the Chinese, the World Health Organization) has neither increased the effectiveness of our national response in the present, nor won support for his decisions in the future.

My bottom line here is simple enough. Most of us already know:

As much as we would like to have infallible experts as our leaders, nobody is infallible.

Almost all big decisions about national policy are made based on beliefs and assumptions, as much as on facts. It’s hard to make predictions (said physicist Niels Bohr), especially about the future.

Our leaders can increase their effectiveness, however, when they
act consistently, explain themselves as much and as transparently as they can, indicate that they understand the uncertainties and risks involved in their decisions, and take responsibility for the results. Yes, that’s asking a lot of our leaders. But that’s what good leadership is.

Demanding that our leaders explain all of their decisions in terms that make sense to us is impractical at best and foolish at worst.

Our leaders can increase their effectiveness, however, when they
act consistently, explain themselves as much and as transparently as they can,
indicate that they understand the uncertainties and risks involved in their decisions, and
take responsibility for the results.

Yes, that’s asking a lot of our leaders. But that’s what good leadership is.

 

 



Categories: coronavirus, Issues, Local, National, pandemic, politics

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