When we watch the news, read the headlines, or have our next COVID conversation, why are we seeing a not-so United States of America? Why aren’t we coming together during this crisis? Why do we feel more frustrated and fed up than hopeful and resilient?
We are witnessing a lesson on leadership and culture, and many political leaders–all around the aisle–are scoring between needs improvement and unsatisfactory on their crisis leadership and culture building report cards.
In early April, Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor at Harvard Business School, explained that leaders today need to provide brutal honesty and credible hope, along with “determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose, humanity, kindness, and resilience.” In addition to providing historical examples of effective crisis leadership, she challenged leaders to prioritize helping others, to admit mistakes and learn on the fly, and to be responsive to people’s energy and emotions. I agree with her that we are seeing some “masterclasses” in crisis leadership across the nation, but we also need some genuine self-reflection, particularly from those with the most influence.
Those in leadership positions should ask themselves big questions. Am I providing brutal honesty and credible hope? Am I demonstrating solidarity, shared purpose, and kindness? Am I prioritizing helping others, admitting my mistakes, and being responsive to the needs of my people?
If you are answering “yes,” then your team is likely rallying behind you with perseverance and optimism because you have created a culture that inspires them, one they want to fight to preserve. According to Daniel Coyle (2017), author of The Culture Code, highly successful groups build safety, share vulnerability, and establish purpose. Using these indicators, let’s talk about why the United States government is not leading the free world when it comes to the pandemic.
On a national level, our leadership is failing to build safety, and not just with our initial capacity to defend against the physical health threat of the coronavirus. Our country is struggling to create a culture that everyone belongs to, and one of the main reasons is an abundance of non-critical thinking, from the White House to the ballot box:
Non-critical thinkers spout slogans which are programmed into them, but they are unable to logically defend these positions. The positions are simply accepted as true. Anyone who challenges the position will likely be considered ignorant or a bigot. Any challenge to the position is responded to with anger rather than intellectual consideration. (From David Peterson’s  summary of Dr. Richard Paul’s strong and weak sense notion of critical thinking)
Sound familiar? This is bad leadership, and it’s bad for culture. All too often, when it comes to politics, opposing sides lack mutual respect and recognition (AKA safety)–because opposing perspectives are wrong. Those who do not listen cannot learn, and judging someone else’s perspective as invalid is a tricky business. Good leaders don’t demand loyalty. They earn it.
It’s worth remembering the strong example that Abraham Lincoln set as a leader in crisis. Let’s not call it a civil war just yet, but I think it is fair to say that COVID-19 has been polarizing. How might Honest Abe have handled it? Based on his actions, my guess is that he would have led with character and honesty, and he would have fought for unity (at the cost of his life). I don’t envision Lincoln as the Twitter type, but many will remember what the first Republican president said of his southern enemies:
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Lincoln was a critical thinker who sought and embraced opposing viewpoints, and as Diane Coutu (author of “How Resilience Works”) pointed out, “Again and again, Lincoln shared responsibility for others’ mistakes, and so people became very loyal to him.” Vulnerability leads to strong leadership. However, rather than a major culture builder, vulnerability is too often viewed as a weakness. Why, as a leader, deny the present reality that you are learning on the go and are making mistakes and are very, very vulnerable? Well, it could be because we have grown accustomed to a culture where winners expose the weaknesses and shortcomings of the losers–and we don’t play with losers. We beat them.
Gianpiero Petriglieri, an expert on leadership and learning in the workplace, explains that crisis leadership requires one to soothe distress and to help others make sense of a confusing predicament, what he refers to as “holding.” Crisis leaders “think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together.” For leaders to accomplish “holding,” they need to establish a shared purpose to orient the group, but, today in America, divisiveness sells, and concession is political suicide. If you are looking for unity and diplomacy, don’t read the headlines of any major news network–and definitely don’t rely on Twitter.
Too many high-profile leaders (and their supporters) are not holding us together and building a better culture. Too many assume the moral high ground, unwilling to cede it to that unconscionable other side, despite convincing evidence. What will the country’s purpose be these next several months? Find a scapegoat? Restore the economy? Develop a vaccine? Win an election? Get back to normal? “Make America great again”? “Our best days still lie ahead”?
We can do better.
How about “one nation”? Or maybe “liberty and justice for all”? Our purpose does not have to be complicated and cannot be discriminatory, nor the factors that go into making daily decisions. I try to ask myself a simple question before I take action: “Am I helping or hurting?” When leaders strive to accomplish the former–without confusing one for the other–good things happen.