Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

The Coronavirus Makes Us Reconsider Assumptions about Leadership

A polling station in Brooklyn, New York, November 4, 2014 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Who should guide us?

As a leadership professor who has served as a senior government official or CEO through several crises, I’ve been asked a number of times recently to “grade” our leaders during the coronavirus pandemic. I sometimes run through principles of good leadership in a crisis and try to match them to the conduct of our leaders (over-communicate, be realistically optimistic, bring order to chaos, lead from the front, represent all stakeholders on their terms, plan for both the short and the long term, demonstrate grit, pivot when needed, etc.). The general verdict? A mixed bag.

After a few rounds of this, I realized that this parlor game misses the bigger leadership lesson for our nation. What the coronavirus crisis reveals is that popular elections will always deliver a random sampling of leadership competence in our top officials. We hope that politicians elected for one set of reasons turn out to be good at a different job in a crisis, but it’s really a lottery. 

Regardless of their personal qualities or backgrounds, elected political leaders are often uniquely ill suited to lead in a crisis — they always feel the pull of political temptation, they have limited tools at their disposal, and their temperament and training may be a poor match for the moment. Politics is their craft, and the ultimate political measurement, almost the sole standard for judging their success or failure, is Were you reelected? 

The temptation to “never let a crisis go to waste” is overwhelming. On both the right and the left, everyone with a theory of government is maintaining that the coronavirus crisis proves his point. Those with seniority or power take the opportunity to commit spending or policy to their goals. They have few other tools to use. As Trump’s wrestling with private industry over producing ventilators and masks has shown, the governmental tools available to politicians are limited in a country that is still largely private and commercial.

Political temptation will color any president’s crisis management. Even our most sainted presidents made profoundly political decisions during national crises. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pleaded with a skeptical General George C. Marshall about his controversial decision to invade North Africa. “Please make it before Election Day!” Roosevelt instructed Marshall. When the military failed to meet that goal, for logistical and operational reasons, Roosevelt’s press secretary lashed out at the Army chief of staff, telling him, “You almost lost us control of Congress by the delay.”

So, too, with some of Lincoln’s wartime decisions, and where does one even start with Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam War? 

Temperament is also an inherent issue. The successful crisis leader is magnanimous in outlook and broad-minded and nondiscriminatory in his stakeholder management, accepts responsibility, and doesn’t play or tolerate the blame game. The best ones are composed — even serene in their disposition — and in their decision-making find a balance between decisiveness and measurement. At times our most visible leaders in this crisis — President Trump, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom — have struck these chords. 

At other times, often within the same press conference, these officials and others have descended to petty political bickering, finger-pointing, and naked political positioning. It is not clear to me that they fully know when they depart from one realm of leadership style and go into the other. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with politicians as a class or as individuals, and they tend to be skilled at their craft. Some have extraordinary backgrounds. At question for us is not their personal character but rather whether their craft and the way it is practiced is a good training ground for the executive competencies and temperament that one needs to be a good leader in a crisis. In the Army we said, “You will fight as you train.” 

There is, of course, a chance that leaders elected for a certain job in a certain setting will turn out to be effective at an entirely different job in a different setting entirely. It is also possible to reduce the element of chance. What if we as a nation were able to do what most institutions do to have the right leaders in the right place at the right time? A popular election to pick political leaders who then must lead in crisis is probably the third-worst way to select a good executive in a crisis — trailing only birthright and seniority. To paraphrase the old Irish joke, if it’s great crisis leaders that we are after, one might not want to start from here.

In commerce, education, nonprofits, entertainment, the military, and other institutions, we select rather than elect. Stakeholders sketch out the executive skills, competencies, and backgrounds they would like to see in their leaders, given the relevant setting and the goals they wish to achieve, and then select the best match. It’s not a perfect process, but psychometric testing and other deliberate methods have helped hone and focus it.

A democratic election is of course a kind of selection. But the selection criteria we exercise as voters have but a peripheral connection to the qualities and attributes we may want from leaders in a crisis. In electing leaders, we rarely make our decision based on the premise of the Hillary Clinton campaign ad about that 3 a.m. phone call. As for elected officials themselves, as Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger has noted, “no national leader plans to be in a position like this.”

Plato cautioned against popular election for leaders, advocating a public-leadership-selection model perhaps seen in its modern form in the rigorous training and meritocracy of Singapore’s leaders. 

For their part, the American Founders had no interest in Plato’s ideal city-state leadership solution, but they obsessed over the problem he raised, seeing a bad track record for popularly elected leaders through history. James Madison made strong appeals to the people to virtuously select or accept Plato-style wise leaders. The effect of a republic, as opposed to direct democracy, would be to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Other Founders were more overtly dismissive of direct democracy — perhaps foreseeing the situation that Luke Wilson portrays in the 2006 satiric film Idiocracy. The worry over the passions of the mob and the vices of the people, and the ability of politicians to play on them, led to a design for the federal government that subjected only about half of the new federal government to popular election. In the end, the Founders sought to limit — through federalism, the Constitution, and republicanism — the power of popularly elected leaders.

But we’re not going back in history to a Senate elected by state legislatures or to changing our system, which has become increasingly democratic, even if popular election has only a random chance of putting the right executive in the right job during a crisis. So what can be done to help better align the tasks at hand in a national crisis with the executive skills and experiences of those who lead during it? How can we find nonpartisan and experienced executives with the right competencies not just to advise but to have the two kinds of power that matter most in public governance — budget authority and legal authority? Senator Chuck Schumer wants a military czar. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has suggested a national-unity cabinet, which would really be nothing more than an exercise in political balancing that would not meet the lack of executive fit and talent.

A better model might be something like the example of Bill Knudsen in World War II. In 1940, there was hardly an elected politician in America at any level who knew how to wage a world war against multiple enemies, with new technology and methods, and to supply the Allies with most of their materials. But they knew where to find that talent. FDR recruited Knudsen, the head of General Motors, to direct war production for the U.S. He was made an instant three-star general and given full authority to create what became known as the “arsenal of democracy.” He was one of many leaders who had that experience during the war.

An executive-talent model could work today if we were to be creative in taking advantage of the leadership talent and executive experience in the country. And to remind all our political leaders that we don’t need politics from them right now, we need leadership.

This article appears as “Who Should Lead Us?” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John HillenMr. Hillen is the incoming Wheat Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Hampden-Sydney College and is a co-author of What Happens Now: Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.

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