The country has been looking to Washington and the White House for leadership in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences.

Sadly, the President seems preoccupied with blaming others for everything and episodically ‘commanding’ things that may or may not help – despite doctors, business leaders, governors and most rational people preaching prudence.

The massive failures of the federal response, particularly on testing (which remains elusive even now) raise the question ‘what is political leadership?’

During the Carter administration – admittedly in far less serious ways and days – I was troubled by the same question. I had heard Carter describe how he had addressed joint sessions of the Georgia legislature and explained to them what he thought needed to be done. Beyond that, though, he did little to advance his aims, leaving his executive arm to its own (many worthwhile, but not his) devices. And he wondered aloud what he was doing wrong.

That led me then to think about how to describe Presidential leadership, particularly in a crisis.

Although far from conclusive (the subject regularly fills entire books), at the time I came up with the following:

  • Define your goals, and a strategy to achieve them, and make the responsibilities of each member of your team – and your expectations –clear.
  • Muster the necessary resources – principally the money necessary to implement the plan.
  • Mobilize a team of senior officials to ensure that under-managers are doing what they need to do, and ensure you are continuously and thoroughly informed.
  • Know that a lot of people who work for you – up and down the ranks — cannot/do not see the world the way the you do.
  • Finally, recognize your blind spots. A leader needs to bear in mind that the people he is managing/leading are in the most part invisible to him — and he to them. And you’re dependent on each other for your mutual successes.

This process boils down to a leader/manager driving /inspiring people he does not know or see to want to achieve what he, the leader, believes needs to be done, with them, in turn, able to inspire the next level down, etc., etc.

It will surprise no one that this is, incidentally, basically the same way CEOs of large companies lead their companies. The basic trick is to have key people with experience, let them know what is expected of them, and impose consequences for failing to deliver.

Trump seems to view leadership solely as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. “Leader” is a role to be played, one that is entirely decoupled from the truth on the ground (much like he played a “successful businessman” on his TV show) and especially decoupled from any need to take specific action.

The script relies on generalities, obfuscation, and outright lies to advance the myth that “leadership” is happening.  It’s said that real leaders lead by example. When the CDC recommended people start wearing face masks in public, Trump quickly undercut it, saying “Somehow I don’t see it for myself.”

 Why would anyone take him seriously as a leader? A single picture of Trump wearing a mask would have signaled to millions of his supporters that the pandemic is serious and personal protection is an effective tool in stopping its relentless advance across the country.

As we head into the Presidential election, our nation would benefit from a clear idea of what kind of leadership the country needs from its next President.


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