The COVID-19 pandemic has pummeled the American healthcare system. The workforce labors under enormous stress. The hospital sector’s lack of preparedness stands exposed. Revenue streams are drying up.
And, in the midst of these crises, the overworked clinicians caring for the sick must deal with a feckless federal government that on an almost daily basis undermines the scientific foundation of their entire enterprise. Our government’s top leaders appear hellbent on throwing evidence-based medicine and public health out the window.
President Donald Trump uses his bully pulpit to promote unproven drugs and quack cures, dismisses shortages, and send messages that contradict the advice of the health professionals at his side. Vice President Mike Pence refuses to wear a mask while visiting patients at the Mayo Clinic, an incomprehensible breach of the famed institution’s protocols and the wrong signal for the American people.
The president uses his emergency powers to order meatpacking plants to stay open despite thousands of COVID-19 cases among their workers. His Occupational Safety and Health Administration makes it voluntary for companies to provide protective equipment or enforce social-distancing guidelines at work.
These workers have families to go home to. His order will inevitably spread the disease in the surrounding communities and raise the death toll.
These actions not only endanger their health, they severely damage faith in public health approaches to fighting disease. That could have horrible long-term consequences.
History will be the final judge on how well healthcare leaders responded to this crisis. That record will include what they did and said to counteract the Trump administration’s almost daily assault on science, reason and public health.
The management literature couldn’t be clearer on how to behave in a crisis. Writing last month in the Harvard Business Review, Nancy Koehn, a management professor and business historian whose mentor died from COVID-19, reminded her readers that leaders “are forged in crisis. Leaders become ‘real’ when they practice a few key behaviors that gird and inspire people through difficult times.”
Kowtowing to fecklessness is not among them.
First on her list is acknowledging people’s fears while encouraging resolve. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933 is best remembered for the line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But in that same speech, he also said the nation must face its economic crisis “wisely and courageously” and “must act and act quickly.”
“Give us the tools and we will finish the job,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill intoned in his famous “We Shall Not Fail or Falter” speech.
Koehn’s other cardinal rules for crisis managers include a willingness to experiment, make mistakes and learn. “Courageous leaders understand they will make mistakes along the way and they will have to pivot quickly as this happens, learning as they go,” she wrote (emphasis in the original).
Admitting mistakes and learning as you go? These qualities have been noticeably absent in the president and the sycophants around him. He listens to no one, brooks no opposition, and is always looking for someone to blame.
Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, described the ideal “servant-leader” as someone who has “the humility, courage and insight to admit they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them.”
As of this writing, a significant swath of the nation is moving toward resuming economic activity without appropriate public health measures in place. Those are, first and foremost, the ability to test, track and trace the disease.
Real servant-leaders have a special responsibility in this moment. They must listen carefully to what the experts and their workers have to say. Then they must have the courage to speak that truth to power.