Paul L. Caron

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Covid-19 Was A Leadership Test. It Came Back Negative.

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Covid-19 was a Leadership Test. It Came Back Negative., by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassOne lesson from the coronavirus is that we need leaders who prevent crises more than we need managers who scramble to handle them.

On some glorious day in the future, when the Covid-19 pandemic has been controlled and contained, it will be time to hand out trophies.

The recipients may include scores of medical professionals, business executives, school administrators, shopkeepers and yoga instructors all over the world who acted decisively to prevent the virus from spreading; often at considerable personal cost and well before the people they protected thought it was necessary.

I look forward to that. Dark stories need heroes, too. But if the worst disease outbreak in modern history only teaches us one lesson, let it be this: The global response to this pandemic will never be anything more than a case study in crisis management. It has already failed the fundamental tests of leadership.

Leadership is what prevents a pandemic.

Managers, as a species, embrace a lower degree of difficulty. They operate best in situations where the threats are specific, the goal is clear and the stakes are plainly obvious. In a crisis like this one, managers thrive by making smart, incremental decisions under pressure.

Great leaders are capable managers, too—the difference is how they approach the tranquil periods. No matter what their role, or how many direct reports they have, or how well things seem to be going, they continue to work relentlessly and resist complacency. They peer around corners to anticipate the next unprecedented challenge, good or bad, and aren’t afraid to push their teams to prepare for these extreme scenarios.

If extraordinary leaders had carried the day, this pandemic wouldn’t produce any heroes. It simply never would have happened.

Last year, before this virus began to spread, I learned about a parable that’s well-known in public-health circles. It goes something like this:

Two friends are sitting by a river when they spot a child drowning in the water. Both friends immediately dive in and pull the child to safety. But as soon as they do, another struggling child drifts into view. Then another. Then another. After completing several rescues, one of them climbs out of the water.

“Where are you going?” the other friend asks.

“I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

I first saw this parable in an advance copy of Dan Heath’s recently published book, “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.” (Full disclosure: my wife is Mr. Heath’s agent.) One of the book’s recurring themes is that most leaders, when preparing for disasters, focus their efforts on creating systems to manage the fallout. In other words, they attack the symptoms rather than the problem itself. ...

“We usually define heroes as people who save the day,” Mr. Heath told me. “We talk about firefighters and first responders. But what about all the people who keep the day from needing to be saved? Their work is often invisible and they don’t get the glory.” ...

If nothing else, I hope this pandemic will help organizations appreciate the difference between leaders and managers and start learning how to identify them.

There are two occasions when most organizations assess their bosses: times of success and times of crisis. But these are exactly the wrong moments to do so. Nobody is solely responsible for these extreme peaks and valleys—there’s nearly always an element of randomness. What’s really important is what the leader does during the quiet moments in between. Leaders reveal themselves through a series of small, calculated and precautionary moves. If you’re not looking for those tells, you’re certain to miss them.

I understand why managers make comfortable hires. They have saved the day before and people will trust them to do it again. Great leaders, by contrast, can come across as killjoys, nags or neurotics. Frankly, their tenures might seem dull.

These days, dull sounds pretty good to me.

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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Unemployed: "Oh, right - it's always someone else's fault in Trumpworld."

I have a very good memory. That also sounds like Obamaworld. While he was running for reelection in 2012, he was still blaming George Bush for all the problems in America.

You people embody narcissistic hypocrisy. And you were also the same folks who, not so long ago, were openly wishing for a recession.

Well, now you got it. You should be thankful for the coronavirus. And the PRC.

Feel good, Democrats? Now you're the ones benefiting from foreign influence in American politics.

Posted by: MM | Apr 17, 2020 7:02:03 PM

P.S. Gloria,

Using your jaundiced standard, retroactively, President Obama "failed" back in 2009-2010 because 17,000 Americans, including 1,800 children, died on his watch of the Swine Flu.

I'll make that point clear for everyone. Your standard applied to the last President, who was a "failure" in your opinion, and under the same circumstances.

Oh, and your favorite paper of record did a great job trying to "exonerate" Biden of sexual assaut allegations. They failed, of course, and based on the standard you people applied to Kavanaugh, Biden is even more credibly accused of sexually assaulting Ms. Reade.


Posted by: MM | Apr 15, 2020 7:57:58 PM

Gloria: If I only ready Old Lady Gray, that is, lived in your bubble, I'd probably believe the federal government "failed", despite the pandemic not being over, and despite the U.S. death rate being lower than other developed countries. But I don't, because your bubble omits relevant facts. It has to do that, because it openly admitted right after the 2016 election that objectivity had to be set aside to cover Trump.

I also "listen to the experts" like Dr. Fauci, who made the following systematic pronouncements just in the past month:

- 200,000 to 1.7 millions Americans could die, March 15th
- 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die, March 29th
- Up to 60,000 Americans could die, April 9th

But since people like you, who didn't give a damn about the coronavirus in Jan. and Feb. when you were trying to cut the head off the Executive Branch, and have nothing bad to say about the PRC and WHO, consider even one death to be a "failure" merely because Trump is President, I for one will accept those estimates from Dr. Fauci as evidence of the federal government, and state and local governments, doing a pretty good job under the circumstances...

Posted by: MM | Apr 14, 2020 9:29:00 PM

"Also, to what stockpile are you referring?

The one that Obama used up and never bothered to restock?"

Trump has been president for nearly four years now. Why didn't he restock it? Oh, right - it's always someone else's fault in Trumpworld - sorta like how he sued Deutsche Bank in '08 after he defaulted on a loan for the Bank extending him the loan in the first place.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Apr 14, 2020 9:57:05 AM

Would that be the "sensible" governor in Michigan who just banned the sale of seeds and plants? Or the "sensible" Gov. in California who wants to use our scarce resources to pay out illegal aliens. "It's all Trump's fault" is a tiresome refrain of the left, who were calling him a racist for restricting travel for China before this whole thing got bad.

Posted by: Tim Kelly | Apr 13, 2020 5:04:50 PM

MM: See the link below and tell me that we don't know yet whether Trump failed:

Posted by: Gloria Scorse | Apr 12, 2020 11:44:19 AM

Nope, I got it entirely right.

Also, to what stockpile are you referring?

The one that Obama used up and never bothered to restock?

"The national shortage of N95 respirator masks can be traced back to 2009 after the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, when the Obama administration was advised to replenish a national stockpile but did not, according to reports from Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times."

Posted by: Anon | Apr 11, 2020 5:31:00 PM

Gloria: "In the United States, Trump by a mile."

Right, of course, not the mayors and governors who never prepare for these things, but are supposed to per their own damn policies.

And, of course, how this has been handled in the U.S. had absolutely nothing to do with the lies of the PRC in January, and the parroting of said lies by the WHO.

Of course not, it's a total failure in the U.S. because we're done with this thing and actually know how it all turned out, right?

Given the known mortality rates here in the states, we're ranking quite low in that cateogory relative to other nations, down near Germany in fact.

I'll call it a failure when we know it's been a failure. We don't know that yet. In fact, Dr. Fauci's models, constantly being revised, peg the total number of deaths to a bit more than the annual deaths from influenza in 2016.

Posted by: MM | Apr 10, 2020 6:10:13 PM

Anon got it entirely wrong. The pre-Trump world assumed that the national stockpile was indeed a suitable national stockpile. Trump thinks the stockpile is his treasure to display or use as he sees fit and let the governors scramble for themselves in competition with the world. The narcissist is at his worst in coping with an invisible enemy that doesn't respond to his bullying slurs so he chooses to wage battle against the very people helping the nation's people--the sensible governors like Cuomo in New York, Whitmer in Michigan, and Newsom in California. Trump failed the Covid leadership test from the time he started calling it a Dem hoax and claiming he was great and "winning" and there'd be no more than 15 cases in the US.....

Posted by: Linda Beale | Apr 6, 2020 1:39:02 PM

The article doesn't name a single guilty party. In the United States, Trump by a mile.

Posted by: Gloria Scorse | Apr 5, 2020 9:59:52 AM

Seriously, all these governors get an F.

They prioritized solar panels and transgendered bathrooms over pandemic preparedness, and now they are reduced to begging or cry-bullying for supplies.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 4, 2020 4:46:44 PM