Leading In The Pandemic Takes Guts

One voice that has personified leadership during the pandemic has been Governor Andrew Cuomo. His daily briefings have become must-see TV and he has been heralded as the voice of reason during this emotionally tattering time when the world has battled the coronavirus. It is so difficult to lead in the face of such an unexpected crisis and NY has surely become the epicenter of this disease. Governor Cuomo has taken a systematic approach: like Joe Friday, he has focused on the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.

Early on Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency and issued a flurry of orders that dramatically altered the way of life for millions of New Yorkers. Each day during this pandemic he has dealt with the dramatic increases in cases that have been diagnosed and the hospitalizations requiring overflows of ICU beds and the dire need for additional medical workers. With determination, he has worked every angle to secure enough ventilators and PPE for his state to care for these patients. He has grieved genuinely for the families who have lost loved ones and as a New Yorker he feels these losses very personally.

He believes and reassuringly repeats: New York is tough, NY is strong, NY is smart, NY is united and NY is loving. This is remarkably reassuring.

In this next phase of the pandemic, he is laser focused on targeting an appropriate time to open NY in the smartest way by emphasizing screening, contact tracing and continued care of essential employees. He is honoring the front-line heroes each step of the way.

Of course, he has not done this by himself, he is the first to acknowledge that he has a remarkable team of experienced people who have been through many things during their tenure. He has called upon the help of Mayor William de Blasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg--who himself is working closely with Johns Hopkins University to organize contact tracing processes. This is not just for the NY area, but they will be able to export these to other states and other countries.

Within the chaos, Governor Cuomo has emphasized the pressing need for NY to resolve its problems, getting people back to work, but doing it smartly, not sacrificing lives in the process. He values the families and individuals who he is designated to lead and protect and he takes these responsibilities seriously.

State-wide problems begat other problems, one after the other. Within all of the questions that he has had to answer about the forward motion of this war on the coronavirus, he has been receiving advice from many people, but in the end, it is his decision on which the state must rely. Opening too early is cause for increased death but too late and the state is deeper in an already incomprehensible amount of debt. The quandaries that he is facing are complex, both life threatening and economically devastating. To lead in this situation, you need guts and courage. And heart.

Looking at the medical side of the problem, Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci face their own quandaries. How do you support American leaders while emphasizing the measures that must be put in place, establishing a process for opening up diverse states, outlining the steps that must be taken, focusing on the data to which states must adhere? Generating posters and power points to further emphasize the facts they want to make? Over and over they discuss the importance of repeated diagnostic testing, the development of an antibodies test, the need for contact tracing, the pressing need for a vaccine.

They spend hours providing advice to all leadership, interpreting the data, answering questions from the press, and working determinedly to keep safety front and forward. They do this even in the face of those who dispute their claims or misinterpret them for others. Despite the importance of it, not everyone appreciates their scientific approach. But both Drs. Birx and Fauci have stuck to their guns and their beliefs, repeating their approaches for the American people. They have become medical icons in the process of their teaching.

Could anyone in the medical world other than Dr. Fauci have Brad Pitt honor him on SNL? Could anyone have a bobble head created in his likeness or his photo on cupcakes? With her trademark scarves, Dr. Birx is noted for her factual and open presentations and has become respected and trusted by many. Clearly, to lead, you need guts and determination as well as humility.

It takes many qualities to lead (and to follow) during this most improbable period. Non-profits all over the world have never had a more challenging time. Countries are focused on fighting a pandemic and people are fighting for their lives, fighting for their family's economic welfare, and, in many cases, they are simply fighting to survive. And where does that leave many non-profits?

What about the CEOs leading the next steps for their own organizations? Their quandaries are remarkably significant; many are facing severe economic struggles and lockdowns. The economy is foundering. People are lonely. Many CEOs are simply unhinged by the challenges--we all are.

Why wouldn't they be? The arts and theater sectors have cancelled performances--no revenues there. Families ask: are colleges and universities dispensable right now? What happens with admissions? The use of on-line approaches will affect attendance at churches, schools and other organizations, thus affecting contributions. The dire need for food and shelter for many people will replace concerns for educational programs and many cultural activities. In the midst of all of this, with the help of their staff members and counselors, CEOs must answer questions like these:

  • What is the best time for me to "reintroduce" our organization and its priorities?

  • Do I need a much more radical approach to what I am doing, something that really lights a fire?

  • Right now our mission doesn't seem as critical in the face of the current climate, how can I "re-imagine" our approach for the future?

  • When do I shift out of emergency mode and ease back into our regular approach--when does the new normal actually begin? When can students return to classes?

  • I know that fundraising success is going to determine the winners and losers in this new climate--do I have the right team? Should I do something about this? What?

  • Should I keep my development team on "pause" or should I give the green light for advancement? Is it too early? Are my donors focused on other urgent issues?

  • In this economic disaster, can I afford to keep the whole team of our administrators or should I cut back? If I do, what will happen with those people?

  • Is it possible that we might solicit some of our trusted donors via Zoom?

  • How should I be communicating? And when? And how often?

  • How can I ensure continuity for our mission? How do I get back on board the train?

  • Is now the time to partner with another organization--would there be risk-reduction and possibly some wonderful benefit?

  • What else can possibly go wrong?

Tough times can bring out the best in people--right now there is no choice but to step forward. Not only CEOs but leaders at every level of the organization. They need to look the problem square in the eye and begin to make decisions. They need not only decide on next steps but begin to think as far into the future as possible, imagining many scenarios, coming up with possible responses to various situations and perhaps re-imagining their mission and their approach. Fancy footwork. An open mind. Creativity. Thinking out of the box. Kindness and understanding. Patience with yourself and others.

Clearly the world can change in the most unimaginable ways. While things will ultimately go back to whatever the new normal is...there will be hard times before then. Everyone is in the same boat and we can help each other.

Leaders need to be tough, strong, smart, united and loving...take a deep breath as well as a page from Governor Cuomo's leadership manual.

And be respectful of others--wear a mask.

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