Leaders in Crisis: What the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Teach Us

March 31, 2020

Crises reveal character, and the COVID-19 crisis is showing us who our nation’s great leaders are in the government, nonprofit and private sectors.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow, leaders in business and government are under increasing pressure. Some are proving strong enough to withstand it, and others are failing.

The primary characteristic of great leaders is the clear prioritization of the well-being of the people they lead above all else.

Institutions that have exhibited this type of empathy and compassion are companies like Starbucks. The coffee chain has closed its cafes for two weeks, providing drive-thru and delivery services only, in a move to protect its employees and customers. Starbucks has offered to pay employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposed to the novel coronavirus for 14 days of self-quarantine and have extended this benefit to employees designated high risk to allow them to say home. Further showing their commitment to their community, Starbucks has also begun providing free coffee to all health care workers and first responders, building on the goodwill and positive coverage they’ve received.

In comparison, a few corporate leaders have chosen to prioritize their finances over their employees and customers while refusing to accept responsibility for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Having been met with ire in the media and their communities, many have proven adversarial and unwilling to acknowledge mistakes under pressure.

Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Boston Bruins and TD Garden, the arena where the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics play, has come under fire for his treatment of employees. As the last NHL owner to announce a plan to compensate part-time employees who worked at the Garden, he was largely mute on the subject until announcing he would cease payments and lay off workers. Most workers found out in the media. He then came under increased criticism when he announced that 68 full-time employees had been placed on temporary leave with only one week of pay. This most recent move was widely condemned, with many pointing out that Jacobs is a billionaire and Delaware North, the company he owns, is worth $3.3 billion.

Similarly, The Hill Restaurant Group in DC, which owns seven eateries on Capitol Hill in Washington, chose to defy orders to shut its restaurant doors when ordered to do so. In a statement, Tom Johnson, the restaurant group’s managing partner, avoided responsibility for slowing the spread of COVID-19 and complained that his company’s finances would be damaged by the crisis. In response to anger from customers and the community, Johnson at first fought back before finally bowing to public pressure to close his restaurants.

While a few leaders have risen to the challenge of tackling the COVID-19 crisis, the clearest example of great leadership in the government sector has come from Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo. Exemplifying empathy, honesty and transparency throughout the crisis, he has won praise from across the political spectrum and has been lauded by many as “America’s Governor.”

Assuming the mantle of a wartime leader, he has spoken with clarity and force, holding everyone to a high standard and challenging us to do our part in defeating the threat of the coronavirus. Ready to accept responsibility for his own mistakes as well as call out the mistakes of other leaders, he has shown both humility and tenacity, earning him the public’s trust.

Most importantly, he has shown his humanity. Personable, encouraging and inspiring, he has fostered a strong sense of connection with the people he serves. The ability to connect with people in times of crisis cannot be understated–as exemplified by FDR’s Fireside chats, great leaders are able to connect in an honest and direct way. Cuomo has shown that while he’s an astute leader, he is also a person grappling with the same challenges and fears we all are during this crisis. He frequently talks about his family and his daughters and the worries and concerns he has about their health and well-being.

In turn, we’ve seen the opposite from our national leaders. President Donald Trump in particular has downplayed the severity of the crisis, having not acknowledged the severity of the virus until early March. The President has also frequently made false claims which have been repudiated by the CDC and leading disease experts. This spread of misinformation and obvious lack of internal coordination has weakened the public’s trust in our federal leadership.

Unlike Cuomo, President Trump has been unable to build a strong sense of community, frequently showing more concern for the country’s economy than its people and showing hostility and aggression toward criticism of any kind, particularly from the media. His leadership style has spread more fear and division, rather than fostering unity and hope, as only great leaders can do.

Though the effects of these leadership styles won’t be fully clear until after the pandemic subsides, what is clear is that strong actions that prioritize the health and wellbeing of the community, combined with effective communication techniques, are the key to great leadership in business and beyond.

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