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Leadership and the Coronavirus: Learning from Trump’s Failures

Strong leadership is required in this Coronavirus pandemic. Here’s how the incompetency of President Trump and his administration is showing itself, and the 5 key actions leaders need to do now that's different.Coronavirus: What We Can Learn from Trump’s Leadership Failures[Screenshot: Washington Post]


Challenge and crises shine bright lights on our actions. Often, they bring out the best in us, but sometimes they simply highlight our lack of competency. This is especially true of leaders because they are in the fishbowl. All eyes on their actions. Don’t believe what they say. Watch what they do. Their actions tell the story of just how capable they are, or aren’t.

Challenge and crises demand strong leadership, especially the ability to lead the breadth of change required for positive results. There are five key actions that a change leader must do well to navigate complexity, whether it be transforming their organization, improving their community or solving a social crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest social challenge the world has faced since World War II. We need world-class change leadership, and it is sorely lacking. Here’s how the incompetency of President Trump and his administration is showing itself, and what leaders need to be doing that is different.

1. Align Leaders

The first action that must occur when faced with crises is aligning leaders up and down the system where the crisis or challenge is occurring. In an organization, the CEO must get the executive team on board, as well as the Board, directors, managers and supervisors. If the challenge impacts customers or the manufacturing supply chain, for optimal results the CEO must get them aligned as well.

The alignment is to the declaration, “We are committed – all-in – on working together to achieve whatever breakthroughs are required to solve this challenge.” President Trump, as the most powerful leader on the planet, should have stepped in and generated this level of global leadership alignment before the coronavirus ever left Wuhan Province.

Granted, Trump doesn’t have that level of authority on the world stage. We do not have global governance. Yet leader alignment is still essential for action. Competent change leaders know how to influence. They build coalitions through relationships and open communication. They form partnerships that serve the larger goal or issue at hand. Trump’s narcissistic, bullying, “I am always right” mentality has precluded this essential change leadership skill from the start of his presidency. Witness the massive exodus of his advisors over the past three years. Witness the breakdown of the trusted relationships with our NATO allies. Coalition and partnership are not in his makeup.

Grade: D-

2. Coordinate Strategy and Planning

Strategy and the guidance it provides for planning answer the question, “How?” The challenge with coronavirus is contagion. The strategy to minimize contagion is to identify where the virus exists and contain it. Slow and flatten the curve. Bide time while accelerating the conditions to expedite the production of a vaccine. That seems relatively straight forward. The challenge is how to deploy that strategy at all levels, from individuals to families to companies, communities, and internationally. That is where coordination comes in. And parts only get coordinated if the leaders are aligned.

We need a centralized – federal – organization to coordinate the design and implementation of a national, global and community strategy and plan. This agency must interface up and across with other countries and global organizations like WHO, the United Nations and NATO and down to states (governors), cities (mayors) and healthcare systems.

We once had this organization. President Obama stood up the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense to address the Ebola crisis. Trump disbanded it in 2018, leaving the country ill-equipped to respond to a pandemic. The evidence is all too visible today. This was perhaps the worst decision of his presidency.

A coordinated command would enable us to centralize and share vital coronavirus information, identify resource needs and move them where they need to be. It would allow us to learn the best practices being developed in other countries as well as in local communities. It would facilitate sharing best practices across the local, national and global systems. It would enable the experts to develop vital strategies and get them implemented consistently.

We have had little of this. Even strategic levers like social distancing are not mandated or consistently implemented. The U.S. is yet to mandate it as Trump punts responsibility to governors. At the state level, seven states are still allowing social gatherings without even a suggestion to limit them. Spring break partying is still occurring in crowded bars and beaches in Florida. Heaven forbid we should stifle someone’s fun during a global pandemic.

Leaving strategy development and implementation to individual locations governed by individual leaders means no coordination, less shared learning and no optimal deployment of limited resources.  Individual leaders will – and are – looking out for their locations with no structure or process for addressing cross-boundary implications or system or cultural dynamics.

Grade: F

3. Engage Stakeholders and Communicate

Communication is the grease in social interaction and the fuel of collaboration. Truthful, fact-based speaking and listening-to-be-influenced are the hallmarks of effective teamwork and whole-system mobilization. It is how stellar teams and organizations produce results beyond the sum of their parts.

Systemic challenges require the engagement of all key stakeholders. In this coronavirus pandemic, this means obviously healthcare, but also the food industry, transportation, manufacturing, education, military, politicians, drug companies, policing, investors, entertainment, etc. Each of these are significantly impacted by this pandemic, just as each has a vital role to play in solving it or helping people adjust to it.

The “tragedy of the commons” tells us that in complex systems, when we act for ourselves individually and attempt to optimize our personal part, we can inadvertently sub-optimize the whole. We need the leaders in each of these sectors to be working together and communicating how to re-align or re-purpose their services to support the necessary changes we are undergoing as a society. We need a way for these leaders to strategize with each other to identify how the whole system of life can best flex to handle human needs and simultaneously solve the pandemic.

President Trump could call on and organize these key stakeholders. He could call on the military to help build hospitals, ask manufacturers to re-purpose production lines to create masks, bring the best scientists together to increase testing. He could trigger the Defense Production Act and rollout an integrated, multi-stakeholder strategy and plan. Instead, the country is a skunk works of isolated activities with little cross-fertilization occurring.

Luckily, we have many leaders and politicians at the lower levels of our national system, begging for action and taking it themselves. Thank God they are there, being as proactive as they can, given the limited leadership and resources the federal government is providing them. But they cannot coalesce the whole. They can only do their part. So we lose the efficiencies of a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach to the coronavirus.

The most important stakeholder of all is the public. We each have impact. We can isolate and disinfect and help “flatten the curve,” or we can be irresponsible and carelessly spread the virus. This message must be delivered with authority, honesty and consistency from our leaders. Instead, we get “happy talk,” misinformation, and outright lies from our President.

Grade: D-

4. Learn and Course Correct

The more complex the challenge, the more non-linear the journey to get there. This is especially true in urgent matters like a pandemic. We must be agile. We must start forward, and then learn and adjust as we go. For this, we need a structure, process and technology for identifying and making the required course corrections within and across all levels of our social system.

The key is information. Without it, we are flying blind. We must have the mechanisms in place to identify early warning signals – the wake-up calls for needed alterations to plans. We must be able to interpret that data objectively and correctly, have the wisdom to see how to alter course and the courage to do so.

Federally, this is not happening. Trump batted away the early warning signals that would have allowed us to engage quickly. We lost the window of containment. For days he called the coronavirus pandemic a hoax and said it would “magically” pass by. Course correction requires relying on experts. Trump only listens to himself and what he believes protects his “in control” image.

Ultimately, the facts of a situation reveal to us what is needed to design the strategy to resolve it. If we see the facts clearly, they tell us how to adjust and proceed toward our goals. But when you have a big ego that always thinks it knows best, and can only spin the story to make you look good, you don’t actually see the facts. You see what you want to see, not what is there. Meanwhile, people die.

Grade: F

5. Model and Walk the Talk

Walking the talk. Demonstrating in word and action what is required in others so they can see it in you. This doesn’t mean being perfect or always positive. It means being real.

Modeling is the ultimate change leadership quality. It requires Presence, humility, care, vulnerability and authenticity. It means showing up as a real human being with an open heart, meeting the situation as it is. If it is sad, be sad. If it is worrisome, be worried. If it is challenging, say so.

This doesn’t mean not also being courageous or confident or decisive. Those leadership qualities must also be modeled, but with honesty and grace. Pontificating or bragging about one’s courage or confidence is not modeling those qualities. In fact, the opposite. It reveals one’s lack of confidence, one’s depth of insecurity.

The worst a change leader can do is fake it, lie and pretend reality is other than it is. That inauthentic behavior does more to undermine leadership credibility than just about anything. It also prohibits solving the challenge.

We need leaders we can believe in, especially during crises. We trust them because we see their trustworthiness as it consistently shows up in their authentic behavior. They call forth our best because we experience them living theirs. Such modeling has been sorely lacking in this administration.

Trump’s lies, misinformation and disregard for facts make him unfit to lead in crises. His leadership style is the exact opposite of what we and the world need.

Grade: F

The Solution

We lack an adequate federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. That means the rest of us must step up, whether we be city officials, governors, industry leaders, first responders, parents or common citizens. Let’s align to do what is necessary in whatever our roles. Let’s coordinate and share best practice strategies within our spheres of influence and up the chain of command as access is found. Let’s engage and communicate wherever we can. Let’s rapidly adjust as we learn. Let’s be models of the best people can become, rise to the occasion and win this battle. In this, we need each other’s support, wisdom, and influence.

Are you in?



How Visionary Leaders Navigate Complexity and Solve Big Strategic ChallengesWEBINAR:   How Conscious Change Leadership  Enables Visionary Leaders to  Solve Strategic Challenges  and Achieve Breakthrough Results


Dr. Dean Anderson

Dr. Dean Anderson is an international speaker, bestselling author, and strategic advisor to the C-Suite. For forty years, Dr. Anderson has been guiding visionary leaders of America’s Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and global non-profit organizations to transform themselves and their organizations to Achieve Breakthrough in business results, culture, leadership, and executive team performance. Dean is the co-founder of Being First, one of America’s most innovative transformational consulting firms, and a co-creator of Conscious Change Leadership, an advanced Body of Work that integrates personal and organizational transformation. Dean received an honorary doctoral degree from Brandman University for this pioneering work. Dean co-authored two cutting edge books that have become classics in the field of organizational transformation: Beyond Change Management: How to Achieve Breakthrough Results through Conscious Change Leadership, and The Change Leader’s Roadmap: How to Navigate Your Organization’s Transformation. He and his co-author, Dr. Linda Ackerman Anderson, have published over 50 articles on human performance and organizational change, and are the co-developers of The Change Leader’s Roadmap Methodology.


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