Leadership during a pandemic

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I googled ‘centers for disease control’ to remind myself whether this organization actually made ‘centers’ plural in their name. Do not ask me why they would want to make it plural, except the National Institutes of Health wants to have more than one institute, plus you sound more important. If you’re just a Center, God knows you could be single office down in the basement of Health and Human Services headquarters.

Go to their website, https://www.cdc.gov/, if you can take it. You feel a little like you stepped into the home page for an elementary school, one that’s more interested in PR than in teaching. Does it reassure you that the CDC is a constant presence at the president’s press briefings? Honestly, you have the presidential seal up front, and off in the back or to the side, you have the CDC logo posted somewhere. Even more than that, they have CDC people lined up in a row behind him! Does that reassure you?

It does not reassure me. Since when do we need health bureaucrats to back up a buffoon who wants to talk to us about our health, or about all the plans he has to protect us from some invisible germ he discovered a couple of weeks ago? I guess he’s supposed to do that because he’s our leader, which means he has to reassure us when we become anxious about something outside our control. Everyone tells him to show leadership, though of course when he stands in front of people at those press briefings, people criticize him for his poor leadership. So he asks those CDC dignitaries to stand behind him, so people will not criticize him.

Since when do we need health bureaucrats to back up a buffoon who wants to talk to us about our health?

I sometimes think, as a culture, we are not a terribly reflective group of people. Generally our attention spans are not a lot longer than the president’s, which is pretty short. In that way, his leadership style suits our disposition. I hope, though, that when the pandemic eases, we pause for even a few minutes to ask whether the feds contributed even minutely to the positive side of the balance sheet in the nation’s response to the pandemic.

I do not mean to say we should pile on people who tried to do their best in difficult circumstances. Yes, I criticize the CDC, and I’ll continue doing so. I just want to encourage a mindset that asks, “Does centralized control in matters of public health give us tools we need to meet a pandemic’s challenges?” CDC’s whole name – every word of it – invites the question. The office practices centralized control of disease. Why is that a good idea? You might say we need a central military command to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, or to deploy an army on a distant shore. Why do we need centralized control to deal with an infectious disease?

If you go to CDC’s website, you’ll wonder what they do that we cannot accomplish more effectively in our own communities.

The premise is that people cannot make choices for themselves – they imitate their leaders instead. That is where they look for direction.

To return to the question of public leadership: good leaders do not force people to do things they would otherwise not do. Leaders make it possible for people to do things they want to do. Michelle Cottle writes in the New York Times that leader Boris Johnson caused untold damage because, why? Because he was out leading people when he should have self-isolated. Because, you see, when you set a bad example, people die. The premise is that people cannot make choices for themselves – they imitate their leaders instead. That is where they look for direction.

Well, to an extent, they do. Yet leaders, in their desire to look decisive and strong, do other things that do not turn out so well for people. If leaders force workers out of their jobs and livelihoods, force business owners to close their businesses and send people home, prohibit medical professionals from developing and distributing needed assays, force this, prohibit that, and flail around until everyone is satisfied you’ve done something decisive – then cough up mounds of magic money to make up for the damage you have done – spare me.

Good leaders do not force people to do things they would otherwise not do.

That is not leadership. That is a perverse kind of panic that satisfies so-called followers who think safety lies with obedience to people who love to give orders, known as strongmen in politics. These people are not your parents. They will put their interests before yours every time. They will close down your livelihood before they let themselves look indecisive.

During uncertain periods and circumstances – conditions that shroud almost all of human existence – one person’s questionable example is another person’s sense of confidence. Numerous social health enforcers seem super-sure they know a good example when they see one – and shame on anyone who departs from their orthodoxy. We have tools now where anyone can shame anyone else, thousands of miles away. These tools of social pressure are the opposite of leadership. Leaders do not pressure, denounce, and coerce. Leaders open the way.


Related quotation from J. D. Tuccille

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., pundits and opposition politicians pounded President Trump for displaying a “lack of leadership” in response to the deadly virus. And it’s true that, as always, the president was prone to minimizing inconvenient developments, bristling at critics, and contradicting members of his own team. Without a strong, focused figure in the White House (maybe somebody less deplorable?), we can’t possibly pull through this crisis, the opponents suggested. But that’s ridiculous; anybody making their responses to events contingent on political office not being held by narcissistic ass-clowns is putting their fate in the hands of circumstances they can’t control. They’re making a false virtue of dependency.

Related articles

Boris Johnson Should Have Taken His Own Medicine. The British prime minister tested positive for Covid-19 and went into isolation, but not before doing untold damage and setting a bad example. 

Stop Looking for ‘Leadership’ During the COVID-19 Outbreak. If you really want politicians to do something helpful, ask them to stop “leading” and to get out of the way.

How to Survive the Blitz: Five lessons from 1940s Britain about national resilience and social solidarity during a crisis.