Crises and the Revelation of Leadership
Crises reveal the best and worst in people. No more so than in our leaders. History has shown the critical role that national and military leaders play when everything is on the line. Battles and even wars are often won or lost because of the competence and character of the leaders involved.
Today’s novel coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating again the importance of leadership and how both competence and character contribute to success or failure.
Public trust is an essential element of the effective government of a nation as noted political scientist and author Francis Fukuyama and others have shown. Controlling the pandemic in a democracy with laws and institutions that prevent government from unwarranted intrusion in private decisions means that the compliance of citizens becomes crucially important. To secure that widespread compliance, trust in our leaders is essential. But we live in a time when polarization and the tenor of public discussion appears aimed at destroying trust. This is made worse when leaders create a record of false statements, hyperbole and dissimulation and engage in harsh and disrespectful treatment of political opponents.
Our government leaders, both elected and appointed, must walk a very thin line of urging compliance with some extreme measures while doing all they can to avoid unnecessary panic and the social discord and economic collapse that accompanies overwrought fears. Politically they are caught between two hard places. First, they need to take necessary and appropriate measures to prevent the collapse of our health care system and help preserve as many lives as possible. Second, they must do their best to preserve our economic system on which the welfare of our citizens depends.
To “flatten the curve” and prevent our health care system from becoming overwhelmed, leaders at the local, state and national levels have called for various measures all essentially aimed at isolating those who are ill and preventing the further spread. Compliance with the requests, orders and demands from government leaders has been uneven and public support for the extreme measures has been consistently waning even while the disease marches forward toward the higher predictions. Is this inevitable, or are there failures of leadership that are preventing both the compliance needed and the confidence that this too shall pass with minimal damage?
The pre-existing condition of loss of trust in government in general and individual political figures specifically has already been noted. This is perhaps the most fundamental issue. It suggests that character, honesty and trustworthiness need to be high on the list of qualities we seek in our leaders. Today, few trust political leaders on both sides of the political spectrum. That means, for citizens to have confidence in the facts and comply with the directives, only those with high credibility should be speaking on behalf of the government. To some degree this has been happening with the visible leadership of vice president Pence and much more so with Dr. Anthony Fauci and his superior when he has spoken, Dr. Francis Collins the head of the National Institutes of Health.
However, much of the focus has been on political leaders at the local, state and national level that have not instilled the confidence and compliance needed. The vacuum of leadership evidenced today in the pandemic has three unfortunate consequences. These all contribute to confusion, conflicting messages, further loss of trust and less social compliance. First, government officials at all levels are issuing information, guidance and directives. Second, we have an overload of information but we lack solid, factual information that is directly related to actions governments are taking or requesting citizens take. Third, messages about actions to take are too often unnecessarily inconsistent and confusing.
- Multiple levels of government response.
This may appear inevitable as the severity of the pandemic rolled out across individual states and communities and so the response needed was not equal in all places at once. Local directions are important. However, for many years those of us in emergency management participated in what is called the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. It uses a very valuable and proven tool of multi-agency emergency response called the Incident Command System, or ICS. This was used to great effect in multiple natural disasters and other crises such as major oil spills. Developed initially in California to solve the problems of multiple fire departments responding to large wildfires, this quasi-military system establishes a unified command structure that incorporates representatives at various levels. Events of national significance were practiced for many years and during the second Bush administration, following 9/11, governments at all levels were mandated to train key personnel in ICS or forfeit federal funding. During the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, unified command was very effectively used and the retired US Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen provided exceptionally competent leadership and communicated with unnassailable integrity. Political factors ended the unification of the response, with considerable harm to public trust and response effectiveness. In the case of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, there is no evidence of NIMS being established. This would not eliminate local response, but would ensure consistency, coordination and would greatly aid public confidence. The public would see a coherent, consistent and competent response across multiple layers of government combined with the best our private enterprises can offer.
2. Unified, authoritative information
How the public gets information has greatly changed with the vast majority now coming through screens. The sources of information are almost unlimited, with widely varying degrees of accuracy. Due to the lack of a single, authoritative source as would be provided by unified command under NIMS, the public has relied mostly on news outlets. But, the “facts” that emerge are too often inconsistent and lack essential context and so unnecessarily contribute to fear and uncertainty. One reason for that is the often noted requirement in our complex and highly competitive news environment to focus on emotion, particularly, fear, uncertainty, doubt and even outrage. Click bait triumphs not just for the billions of social posts, but, sadly, also too often in our mainstream media.
Admittedly, in the fast changing nature of a pandemic, facts are hard to come by. The delayed and inconsistent information about the illness from China where it began added considerably to the public’s lack of confidence in what they are seeing, hearing or reading. The Incident Command System employs a unified communication structure called the Joint Information Center or JIC. Under the control of unified command, in major incidents it is designed to be the one, authoritative place to get confirmed facts about the situation and how it is being resolved. It also brings local and state communications under the management of this structure which, had it been employed early on, would have helped ensure a much more consistent and reliable focus for public information.
It is essential in situations such as this that those delivering the information be seen by the public as highly competent and credible. What the pandemic in the US needs is a leader of the stature of Admiral Thad Allen who has the authority under federal law and the executive branch to operate with maximum speed and flexibility. Such a leader should be free from political taint to help secure the greatest level of public confidence and compliance with the necessary directives.
3. Confusing, conflicting and too-often non-sensical directives
The lack of a unified response has meant that political leaders from the local, state and national levels have issued guidance and directives aimed at preventing the spread through social compliance. But, these have too often shown that a primary motive is advancement or protection of a political career rather than reasonable requests that inspire compliance. They have also demonstrated either an ignorance of basic emergency management procedures and terms or an unwillingness to make use of the trained resources available to them.
One very clear example is the use of the term “shelter in place.” This term has for many years been used in extreme situations such as tornados or active shooter where citizens out and about would be at severe risk. Shelter in place means to close and lock doors and windows and stay inside away from entrances until notified by authorities that the command is lifted. It is a command. It requires compliance and compliance means stay inside. So, when governors and mayors issue directives to “shelter in place” but tell us to feel free to go to the grocery story, or pharmacy, or take your dog for a walk, or get outside and get some exercise because it is good for you, a very confusing message is received. Many have tried to explain what they mean by shelter in place, but using the wrong term in the wrong circumstances not only limits compliance, but virtually eliminates that term from being used in the way it was intended for the foreseeable future. When police in a neighborhood in the near future issue a “shelter in place” warning for a four block region due to an active shooter, will citizens consider it safe to go get some groceries or take the pup for a walk?
One of the worst things leaders can do is issue warnings or directives that invite refusal to comply. Ill-conceived laws and regulations spur “scofflaws.” When drones were becoming wildly popular by many young people, the FAA announced they were considering requiring all drone operators to become licensed private pilots. That nonsense was abandoned, but if enacted it would have resulted in tens of millions of scofflaws. That is harmful to the social contract and trust in government. No enforcement would be possible and the gap between reality and regulation would be painfully obvious.
This is happening today as well. Two very local situations illustrate it. In Bellingham, Washington, my former home town, the newly elected mayor proposed ordinances that would ban alcohol sales, ban the sale of guns and prohibit those with the legal right to carry guns to exercise that right, and ban the sale of gasoline in containers. The reason, apparently, is that the mayor believes he needs to get a step ahead of potential social collapse and therefore prevent drunken anarchists from shooting up the town and setting fire to everything. Not only does this communicate a devastating mistrust of those who voted him into office, but had it been seriously considered it would have immediately caused a run on all stores selling alcohol for at least 100 miles, would have caused a massive spike in gun and ammunition sales and would likely have caused a short term shortage of gasoline as citizens filled every possible container. This mayor’s action does not show competence. And, when the mayor attempts to pass more reasonable measures that may give him additional authority to act to protect citizens, the lack of trust these bad ideas generated will make it difficult for him to take needed action.
Another situation that reduces social compliance is restricting access to products and services that have little to no direct impact on spreading the disease. Clearly, banning gasoline sales will not prevent the virus from spreading. Neither will banning residents from using recreational facilities providing those facilities can minimize risks by eliminating touch points and ensuring social distancing. Shutting down golf courses in southern California, is an example. Having played golf on one of these during the time of fear and uncertainty and scrupulously following the guidelines for protection, it is perfectly clear that shutting facilities like this does more harm than good and contributes to lack of trust in the good judgment of those issuing these directives. Again, needlessly creating scofflaws makes it far harder to enforce the right directives through social compliance.
One answer given for many of the restrictions is because of the potential for legal liability. This is no doubt a serious concern. A milk bottler I know faces shutdown because of the use of glass bottles and lawyers for key customers have demanded those bottles not be used. Are paper and plastic bottles significantly safer than glass? Safety was not the reason, it appears. Legal liability was the reason given. One of the most important actions our government leaders can take to maintain and build public trust, ensure maximum social compliance and facilitate the fastest possible recovery is to suspend the ability to sue for supposed failures to protect those who may be exposed. Only the most egregious cases of sheer negligence or malice should be pursued and then under criminal, not civil law. Is such a thing possible? Probably not when considering political contributions. And that reality further undermines public trust.
Times of national and global crises demand exceptional leadership. We live in the world we do today thanks to the Abraham Lincolns, Franklin Roosevelts and Winston Churchills of previous generations. Do we have the leaders of such character and competence today? Would we even know it if we did given the historic low trust in government and specific leaders? Can anyone govern and lead effectively in such a fractured information environment where multiple voices work to undermine credibility of everyone else?
Given what appears to be significant weaknesses in our leaders today and significant errors in implementing effective tools of crisis management, I am amazed at the resilience and social compliance on display. These times bring out the best and worst in people, in structures, and policies. But what is clear that America remains strong and resilient and eager to face the very significant challenges ahead. One can hope and pray that our leaders step up the severe challenges of today and tomorrow.