In a time of crisis, like we are in now, with people feeling frightened and uncertain, leadership doesn’t just matter more. It matters exponentially more.
Because even small errors in navigation can have exponential consequences when you’re spending $1 trillion in a week — while fighting a pandemic that spreads so fast that hesitating for just a week can totally sap your ability to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.
In moments like these, when the choices we make are so impactful, people desperately want to believe that their leaders know what they’re doing. But they quickly learn that in times like these, leaders either grow or swell — they either grow out of their weaknesses and rise to the level of the challenge or all of their worst weaknesses swell to new levels.
And pandemics leave nothing hidden. They flow into every tiny corner and pore and expose every weakness or strength in your society: how much trust you have in your government; how much social trust exists in your community to enable collaboration; the strength of your companies’ balance sheets; how prepared your government is to tackle the unexpected; how many of its people are living paycheck to paycheck; and what kind of public health care safety nets you’ve built.
We have never had a simultaneous global leadership stress test like this — one that is testing leaders from the schoolhouse to the White House and from city halls to corporate suites. Everyone will be graded.
Because this is such a critical leadership test at all levels, and because it is so not over, I called my teacher and friend Dov Seidman — founder and chairman of both the ethics and compliance company LRN and the How Institute for Society, which promotes values-based leadership — to explore this issue. This is an edited version of our conversation:
TF: It’s hard to think of a time since World War II when the question of what makes a good leader was more central.
DS: Because leadership in so many different levels and spheres has never mattered so much all at the same time — teachers, principals, presidents, school superintendents, hospital directors, CEOs, mayors, governors, media and parents. And everywhere these leaders turn they face vexing moral issues and trade-offs. That’s because what started as a health crisis exploded into a humanitarian crisis and then quickly became an unprecedented economic and unemployment crisis. And now it’s also a moral crisis, forcing leaders to balance saving lives and saving livelihoods.
On top of all that, these crises are combusting together in the age of social media, so fear, panic and misinformation spread instantly and widely, and leaders can be challenged, scrutinized, criticized and exposed from a million different directions.
TF: It’s not easy leading anything today, but what do the best leaders have in common?
DS: Great leaders trust people with the truth. And they make hard decisions guided by values and principles, not just politics, popularity or short-term profits. Great leaders understand that when so many vulnerable and scared people are so willing, so quickly, to put their livelihoods and even their lives in their leaders’ hands, and make sacrifices asked of them, they expect the truth and nothing but the truth in return. Leaders who trust people with the truth are trusted more in return. But you better not betray my trust — by not telling me the truth — when I have literally put my life in your hands.
The leaders we will remember from this crisis are those who put more shared truth into our world, not muddied it. And those who put more trust into our world and not eroded it. In my view, trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug. Whenever there is more trust in a company, country or community, good things happen.
TF: Some of our leaders today talk as if people want only good news and optimism to calm their fears.
DS: The true antidote to fear is hope, not optimism. Hope comes from seeing your leader lead in a way that brings out the best in people by inspiring collaboration, common purpose and future possibilities. It takes hope to overcome great fear and meet great challenges. People do, of course, appreciate good news and optimism from their leaders, but only if it’s grounded in reality, facts and data.
TF: I once asked you what you thought was Nelson Mandela’s greatest leadership attribute, and you said “humility.” Why?
DS: In addition to truth and hope, what people actually want in a leader, even a charismatic one, is humility. I feel more certain in the face of uncertainty when a leader says to me, “I don’t know, but here are the wise experts I am going to turn to for answers, and here is how we are going to hunt for the answers together.” The more I hear Dr. Fauci say that he does not know something, the more closely I listen to him discuss what he is sure of.
Humble leaders actually make themselves smaller than the moment. They know that they alone cannot fix everything. So they create the space for others to join them and to rise to do big things — together.
TF: How do you think governors and mayors should approach this wrenching question of when to safely reopen their economies?
DS: The strongest local leaders will be the ones who collaborate with others and, at the same time, are exceptionally clear about their plans, brutally honest about the risks, utterly specific about the behaviors they’re asking of us, constantly searching the world for best practices and totally transparent about the technologies and data they want to collect to track our movements and contacts.
They’ll also be the leaders who go to extremes to protect those among us who are vulnerable and support those among us who are risking their lives so everyone else can get back to theirs.
TF: This virus has triggered a global pause. You once remarked to me: “When you press the pause button on a computer, it stops. But when you press the pause button on a human being, they start — that’s when they begin to rethink and reimagine.” Is this such a moment?
DS: In the pause we have the opportunity to reflect on all that this tragic pandemic is revealing about ourselves and our society. A pause can lead to a new beginning, to a reimagination of how we want to live differently — less unhealthily and less unequally — in the future.
For instance, the line between the public and private sectors is being blurred. We will never look the same at the role that government can play in our lives after seeing government — in a capitalist economy, no less — spend $2 trillion rescuing businesses and sending the most vulnerable checks, practically overnight.
At the same time, after so many businesses put people ahead of their profits during this crisis, I hope many will see the wisdom of putting humanity at the center of their businesses in the future, too, with greater benefits for workers, the community and shareholders. For global business leaders, this means creating supply chains that are not just about speed and efficiency but about resilience and integrity.
In other words, after this health crisis is over, good leaders will pivot.
TF: What do you mean “pivot”?
DS: A pivot, as in basketball, is a very deliberate action where I put one foot solidly in place and I then move the other foot in a better direction. In a political leader’s case, in a company leader’s case, in an education leader’s case, that pivot will be anchored, hopefully, in deep human values — and then move in the new directions we’ll need in a post-pandemic world, where people’s expectations will have fundamentally changed.
Emerson said, “In each pause I hear the call." Now we need to save people, but in what you call the A.C. era — After Corona — it will be about how we serve people differently — with a tighter connection between human needs and economic progress and between our environmental needs and economic prosperity.
Leaders who in this pause hear that call — leaders who bring that ethos of saving people today but serving people and society differently tomorrow — will be the ones that will earn our most enduring respect and support.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.