Leadership in the Plague Years

Thoughts on a governor, a mayor and the need for clarity and calm in a crisis

| 26 Mar 2020 | 11:24

This virus is spreading so quickly that it outstrips our ability to keep up with events or lessons that might help us. So it is useful to take a breath, now and then, and consider things, like, for instance, how the lessons of parenting are relevant to finding the leadership to guide us through what are still only the early days of this crisis.

There was a moment last week when it felt as if fire was spreading through the house while our parents squabbled over disciplining us. The Mayor warned it might soon be time to make us go to our rooms and stay there. But the Governor said, no way, your personal liberty matters to me and besides, I am the parent and I will decide.

We won't even begin to discuss our crazy uncle, the President, and some of his eccentric advice (although I am now hording tonic* water).

Ok. Our leaders are not our parents and citizens are not children, even if some of us are acting that way by gathering where we should not or hoarding what we must not.

More than anything, kids yearn for clarity and calm. When parents squabble, both are lost. So, too, with leaders communicating with their citizens in times of trouble.

Andrew and Bill

Governor Cuomo has offered a firm hand. “Calm, informative, reassuring and subtly authoritarian when called for,” wrote Bob McManus, contributing editor of City Journal.

Mayor DeBlasio, not so much. His staff complained behind his back that he was detached and unfocused at times. The public record documents that he wasn’t heeding the advice of his own public health experts.

The mayor and governor have struggled to get on the same page. First, the mayor resisted drastic actions that the governor then shoved him into – shutting down parades, theaters, restaurants, bars and, finally, the school system. Then last week the mayor flipped a switch and warned that more draconian action could be needed. New Yorkers would soon have to shelter in place in our own homes, he started saying. The governor more than once took to television and radio to shut the mayor down.

In some of his comments the governor said that orders to stay home would be excessive. But at other moments his rebuff of the mayor was more an assertion of his authority. In any case, on Friday the governor ordered all but essential businesses across the state to send their workers home, leaving unresolved the question of how a shelter-at-home order is different from a send-everyone-home order.

Lessons for a Pandemic

Second-guessing officials is one of the great pleasures of being a journalist. But like everyone else, we must give up a few of our favorite things to get through this plague. There will be plenty of time later to judge presidents, governors and mayors. Needless sniping, from other politicians or journalists, is distracting. But what does matter, right now, is to quickly learn the leadership lessons we will need to get through this pandemic. And so:

- Partisanship is a preexisting condition that endangers us. This is not political word play, it is epidemiology. The research is well established that we listen through partisan ears. Republicans believe Republicans and disbelieve Democrats and vice versa. Right now, that difference can kill. If a third of a community doesn’t listen to public health instructions for any reason, be it partisanship or plain stupidity, the virus will continue to spread.

- Clarity is crucial. Many steps involve individual behavior. We are past the advice stage. Most people want to comply to clear instructions. Noise and mixed signals are dangerous. They create a menu to pick from rather than instruction to follow. Just as kids play squabbling parents off, so citizens will pick and choose the message they like best.

- In it together means together. Everyone says this. But if you say it, mean it. Why did the mayor drag his team to the gym? Why does the president still crowd around the podium with his staff? Actions and optics matter, often more than words.

After a rocky week, the mayor is starting to get it. He praised the governor lavishly for his shutdown order and stressed that he was “listening” to New Yorkers. But change is hard. At one point in his Friday briefing he said he was going to share facts, as painful as they were. But he quickly veered off into another attack on President Trump as “irresponsible” and “childish.”

Mr. Mayor, we have the fall election – and we will have it – to discuss that.

*Authors Note

Tonic water, one of the British Empire’s great contributions to civilization, contains quinine, derived from the cinchona tree and long used to treat malaria. President Trump touted a synthetic version, hydroxychloroquine, as a possible treatment for COVID-19. He was way ahead of randomized clinical trials, which are just getting underway, and stressed out Anthony Fauci of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, the government’s senior infectious disease doctor and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before this post goes viral please note there is also no scientific support for the use of tonic water. It is, however, essential for real gin and tonics at virtual parties.