I’m no Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose stock in trade is presidential biographies. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian researches American history and the personal lives of her subjects with a focus on their leadership qualities. I haven’t done Kearns Goodwin’s years of close study and analysis on leadership. But, in this moment of crisis, even I can recognize what leadership is, and equally important, what it is not.
I’ve worked in too many organizations where the person at the top is ill-equipped to be there. That’s because being in charge is different from being a leader. While the people on their teams suffer — these high-ranking incompetents stumble through during routine times. But in a crisis, they are revealed to be the real-life equivalent of that fairy tale emperor proudly strutting through the town square wearing no clothes.
A crisis like the COVID-19 epidemic also creates opportunities for positive leadership from the ranks of would be followers. Witness the legions of Americans out in front getting much needed personal protection equipment to frontline health care workers. Even if they have to sew them or adapt old tools. And we’ve all seen the leadership that has risen up from the ranks of the health care workers themselves. Taking on that extra responsibility while carrying out their lifesaving duties, putting their own health at risk.
Google has more than 1,400,000 articles on how to be a leader, and who makes a great leader. Few would dispute that Dr. Anthony Fauci defines leadership. Long before COVID-19, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was already well known worldwide for his expertise in epidemics.
I remember how important he was during the HIV/AIDS crisis when there was also rampant misinformation as well as bias directed at victims. I’ve admired his untiring mission to get the word out about COVID-19 — from an Instagram talk with NBA superstar Steph Curry to the podcast of the New England Journal of Medicine to a chat with Showtime’s late-night hosts Desus and Mero. Dr. Fauci is the embodiment of authentic leadership characterized as credibility built on having honest relationships with followers. We trust him to tell the truth even if it is hard to hear, and even if he has to walk on eggshells around a President not known for telling the truth.
Truth tellers upset a lot of people which is why the doctor has received death threats. His authentic leadership stands in contrast to President Trump who until recently denied that coronavirus was a public health threat. And when asked if he took responsibility for the delay in the distribution of COVID-19 test kits, he defiantly responded, “I don’t accept responsibility at all.”
Professor, researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown says,” the world is desperate for braver leaders.” Brown says leadership is about “the willingness to step up put yourself out there and lean into courage.”
I’m watching New York Governor Mario Cuomo risk irritating the President in an effort to be prepared for his state’s huge predicted surge in COVID=-9 infections and deaths. This at the same time a "Boston Globe" editorial declares that President Trump has “blood on his hands” because of his lack of leadership led to unnecessary suffering and death.
According to the scientists, 200,000 Americans will likely die before COVID 19 infection rates slow. We’re going to need leaders in every arena to pull us through the hell of weeks of isolation and social distancing. I have no doubt that many will be forged in the urgent fire of this moment. Trusted. Authentic. Brave.