Leaders R’ Us

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Historians are fascinated with leaders that guided their constituents through a daunting crisis. Likewise, they are similarly fascinated by leaders whose judgment and political skill resulted in legislative success that had eluded their predecessors. It’s certain historians will scrutinize and evaluate the leadership models that have been in evidence in our nation during the current COVID-19 crisis.

Great leadership is not always about achieving a political objective; sometimes it is evidenced in offering consolation or inspiration; or to channel strong feelings or fears into constructive, and unified behavior. Great leaders promote others to be leaders as well – encouraging people to assume responsibility for their own behavior for the collective good.

There are examples of poor leaders who possessed none of the above qualities, but still managed to achieve positions of responsibility and political power. The damage such leaders can do in a crisis is devastating to contemplate; poor political leadership frequently takes the form of promoting an “us versus them” void that is easier to open than to bridge. Such division in a society is a dangerous contagion to which negative, angry, self-involved leaders expose their followers. That division is antithetical to effective emergency management, and undermines homeland security.

Poor (or nonexistent) leadership can be countered. In the United States, sitting governors, and elected and appointed leaders in local and county governments have stepped up to the challenges of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Absent coherent and reliable directions from the very top of our national government, respected health professionals have provided factual, evidence -based information to the public.

Those who ask not to politicize this crisis are correct, in that parsing every misstatement, every outright lie, and every distortion of a weak and uncertain leader’s’ actions is probably not an effective use of anyone’s time during the crisis. We should focus on what can be accomplished now. There will come a time, when the COVID-19 is contained, or appears to have subsided, for a sober after – action review of what went right, what went wrong; where leadership failed, and where it succeeded. That review must be impervious to “spin” – we’ll need to do much better in the next go-round.

In a blog postscript in March, I noted that Washington State was fortunate to have had leaders with great foresight at the turn of the century – they led the way nationally as well as regionally in preparing for the health emergency we are currently experiencing. Their example helped us during H1N1 and during the Ebola outbreak. The experience and knowledge that the current emergency management and health teams have acquired is invaluable to our Governor now and will be in the future.

Emergency managers have long known that individuals taking responsibility for what they can control in a disaster is the key to successful response, and recovery. Happily, governors, county officials, and mayors have emerged from the trenches to manage this crisis and establish a path to follow. Their message is clear: we all must be leaders now.

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