GUEST COLUMN: Perhaps the Largest Failure of Leadership in U.S. History

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Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most difficult challenges. Effective leaders rise to the occasion and ignite and inspire their people to a common purpose. Ineffective or malign leaders fail to rise to the challenges before them, and almost always make matters even worse. In two of my books – The Agony of Decision and Reputation Management – I describe the ten most common mis-steps in crisis response.

Crisis Mis-Steps #1 & #2

The most common mis-step is to ignore or deny a problem. In the aftermath of the U.S. government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, the late General Electric CEO Jack Welch reflected on a common pattern of ineffective crisis management. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he described predictable stages of crises that are handled poorly:

“The first stage of that pattern is denial…”

Welch says that one of the hallmarks of good leadership is to acknowledge the reality of what is happening without denial. He says leaders need to,

“dispense with denial quickly and look into the hard stuff with eyes open.”

And he describes the temperament that is best suited to handle crises:

“a forthright, calm, fierce boldness.”*

*(“The five stages of crisis-management” by Jack Welch, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2005, p. A20. No longer available online free of charge.) The second most common mis-step is to diminish the significance of the problem. In The Agony of Decision I identify the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s ignoring, diminishing, and hiding the systemic abuse of children by priests for decades as a signal example of these two mis-steps, and as one of the worst handled crises of all time. But now there’s another, and it may be even worse. As this post is published, the United States has just crossed the threshold of two hundred thousand confirmed COVID-19 deaths, with about one thousand two hundred Americans dying from the virus every day.


Trump Admits in March That He Is Downplaying COVID-19

In the last ten days, we learned that Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward has recordings of 19 conversations with President Donald Trump, 18 of which served as the basis for his some of the content in his just-published book, Rage. According to Woodward, on January 28, 2020, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien told Trump that COVID-19 would be,

“the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”

In a call Trump made to Woodward on February 7, Trump described what he knew about COVID-19:

“It goes through air, Bob, so it’s tougher than the touch. But the air, you just breathe the air. That’s how it’s passed.”

He then explained that COVID-19 is more deadly than flu:

“It’s also more deadly than even your most strenuous flus. You know, people don’t realize this, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year [to the flu] here. Who would ever think that, right? This is more deadly. This is five percent [death rate] versus one percent or less than one percent [for the flu], you know, so this is deadly stuff.”

A Washington Post analysis by reporters Robert Costa and Phil Rucker notes,

“At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the U.S. government had it totally under control.”

On March 19, when there were 265 confirmed COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S., Trump told Woodward that he was aware that young people and children could catch the disease:

“It’s not just old people, Bob. Today and yesterday some startling facts came out. It’s not just old people. Young people too, plenty of young people.”

But he also told Woodward that he was playing down the risks:

“To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

It is not clear what he meant by creating a panic, since many observers have pointed out that Trump doesn’t mind scaring people about other topics. My own sense is that he was worried about panicking Wall Street and causing the stock market to crash. Indeed, the S&P had fallen 34 percent in the month before this interview, and the Dow Jones Industrial Index was about to complete its worst first quarter since 1987. Woodward notes that the tone was set at the top, but that others in the White House also denied the severity of the pandemic. He told The Post’s Philip Rucker:

“I think there was denial across the board… [Trump is] a one-man band [who is] going to do what he wants to do on impulse or on information he has… He’s a bulldozer to the staff and, quite frankly, to the country… And he just says what he wants, and so there’s no control. And this is one of the problems of the Trump presidency, that he doesn’t build a team. He doesn’t plan.”

On April 5, 2020, Trump told Woodward,

“It’s a horrible thing. It’s unbelievable. Can you believe it? It moves rapidly and viciously. If you’re the wrong person and if it gets you, your life is pretty much over. If you’re in the wrong group; it’s our age group.”

On April 13, 2020, Trump told Woodward,

“It’s so easily transmissible. You wouldn’t even believe it… This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance. So this rips you apart. It is a plague.”

Crisis Mis-Step #5: Lie

The fifth common crisis mis-step is to lie. The Washington Post has documented the scope and frequency of Trump lying while president: In his first 827 days in office he told 10,000 lies or false statements, he told 10,000 more in the next 444 days. By July 2020, he was averaging 23 lies or false statements per day. And Woodward’s book now reveals just how dangerous Trump’s lies were. In his interviews with Woodward, Trump acknowledged knowing the following about COVID-19:

  • It is spread in the air.
  • You catch it by breathing it.
  • Young people can get it.
  • It is far deadlier than the flu.
  • It’s easily transmissible.
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart.
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague.

But he was telling the nation the opposite:

The Consequences of Downplaying the Severity of the Pandemic

As the president was downplaying the pandemic, there was no whole of government response, no national testing policy, no national masking policy, and no agreement on the severity of the disease. And tens of thousands died. On September 10, Dr. Irwin Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and its Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative, told The Daily Beast that Trump,

“has blood on his hands.”

Dr. Redlener elaborated,

“If we had the leadership we needed, I’m pretty certain we would have been under 100,000 fatalities—and probably under 50,000 if we had been aggressive from the beginning.”

The Daily Beast explained,

“Redlener didn’t just pull that number out of thin air. In a May study, Redlener’s Columbia University colleague Jeffrey Shaman and co-authors simulated aggressive, coordinated, ‘counterfactual’ U.S. responses to the pandemic. They asked what might have happened if Trump had followed expert advice and locked the country down no later than early March. In that case, 35,000 American lives would have been saved through early May, Shaman and his team found.

Dr. Redlener extended that calculation through September, and concluded that as many of 150,000 of the fatalities to date could have been avoided, but were caused by Trump’s incompetence.

“The pandemic didn’t have to be so bad. Other countries with better leaders avoided the worst outcomes. America has suffered among the worst possible outcomes because, in Trump, America has a weak, dishonest leader, Redlener said.”

Dr. Redlener noted,

“This is criminal negligence. If [Trump] didn’t have this thing called sovereign immunity, I would see this as basis for being charged with criminal negligence.’”

The President Continues to Model Irresponsible Behavior

  Two days after Bob Woodward’s release of the audio of President Trump acknowledging that COVID-19 is airborne, transmitted through breathing, and is deadly, President Trump held a campaign rally in Michigan. There were thousands of people at the rally, with no social distancing and very few masks. CNN asked some of the attendees why they were not wearing masks. One said,

“Because there’s no COVID. It’s a fake pandemic, created to destroy the United States of America.”

Told that President Trump had admitted to Bob Woodward that there is a virus and it is deadly, the Trump supporter said,

“That’s his opinion. The truth is that the CDC says that only less than 10,000 people have died from COVID.”

Another said,

“I’m not afraid. The good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die. We gotta get this country moving. What are we going to do? Wear masks and stay inside for another year? Where will that get us?”

Several days later, Trump held an indoor rally in Nevada, also without social distancing and with few masks. This was a violation of Nevada law, but Trump went ahead with the rally. The Washington Post warned that the rally could become a superspreader of the virus. It said that Trump’s,

“… appearance Sunday was not a misunderstanding but a deliberate defiance of rules intended to keep people safe, rules that were advanced by Mr. Trump’s own White House…. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was also disconnected from the reality of a nation still staggering under the pandemic wave, with at least 191,000 people killed and 6.5 million infected. ‘We will very easily defeat the… virus,’ Mr. Trump sunnily declared. ‘That’s what’s happening. And we’re already making that turn. We’re making that round beautiful last turn, but it should have never happened.’ Mr. Trump plays a huckster’s game, thinking he can fool enough of the people all of the time. The clock is running out on this gambit. The nation is long past his misplaced bravado and happy talk. Behind it lies reckless abandon with people’s health and well-being.”

Failure to Pass the Leadership Test of a Lifetime

In their March 19 interview, Woodward named COVID-19 the leadership test of a lifetime, but Trump disagreed. And Trump continues to speak and act in ways that are contrary to what he told Woodward about the disease. And people continue to die. In an August 14 interview, when the death count was more than 168,000, Trump told Woodward, about his leadership of the COVID-19 response,

“But nothing more could have been done. Nothing more could have been done.”

  With two hundred thousand American fatalities so far, three quarters of which could have been prevented through decisive and consistent leadership, Trump’s handling of COVID-19 may be more than the failure of a leadership test of a lifetime. It may well be the worst handled crisis, and the most significant failure of leadership, in United States history.

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