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 The Failure Of Global Leadership In Managing The Covid-19 Pandemic
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.
If a company is being inundated with customer-service calls, for example, its leadership might
mobilize a backup team to handle the overflow. The problem, as Mr. Heath explains, is that once
these emergency-response teams exist, they tend to self-perpetuate. If calming irate customers
is your job, your primary motive is calming them successfully. You have no incentive to figure
out how to stop them from calling.
“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.”
The upside of being a manager, as opposed to a leader, is that it’s much easier to be perceived as
heroic. The downside, of course, is that you’re confined to a cycle in which every crisis you
tackle is followed by a long period of neglect that inevitably worsens the next crisis. In the case
of Covid-19, any lack of organizational preparation is unforgivable. The threat of a global
pandemic has loomed for years.
Mr. Heath cites several examples of leaders engaging in “upstream thinking.”
He mentions an IBM system that uses artificial intelligence to predict when elevators are likely
to break down, so technicians can be dispatched before they do. He describes how Northwell
Health, a New York hospital system, cut emergency response times by analyzing 911 call data
and deploying its ambulances to “hot spots” where emergencies tend to happen. If calls from a
nursing home tend to come in at lunchtime, for example, they might have a ready-to-go
ambulance parked at a Wendy’s down the block.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, there was one bright spot in the
otherwise abysmal response. Officials had been experimenting with “contraflow,” an elaborate
process in which interstate traffic is rerouted to flow in one direction. Before Katrina hit, they’d
honed the system enough to keep it rolling for 25 hours, allowing thousands to evacuate. While
an estimated 1,700 people died, it could have been much worse: Simulations of a Katrina-like
storm had predicted 60,000 fatalities.
One problem with upstream leadership is the difficulty of grading it. You can’t assemble a panel
of grateful people who didn’t get stuck in an elevator, or would have died if an ambulance
arrived 90 seconds later, or will testify that contraflow saved their lives. As Mr. Heath put it:
“How do you prove when something did not happen?” The Failure Of Global Leadership In Managing The Covid-19 Pandemic
Relentless competence can backfire, too. Some public-health officials have said that if they do
their jobs well and nothing bad happens, their departments are sometimes targeted for budget cuts. In business, some upstream thinkers have complained that when a company runs
smoothly, some people start to think it’s not assuming enough risk.
When it comes to major catastrophes like Covid-19, genuine leaders often encounter another
problem. The plans and protocols they’ve developed for these disasters have been filed away
and left to gather dust, right next to a box of expired hand sanitizer. It’s one thing to formulate a
brilliant plan. Implementing it under pressure is another story.
The best advice that I’ve heard comes from Dr. Jeffrey Freeman, a disaster response expert
from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. In something as serious as a pandemic, he
told me, people involved in the response have limited time and resources. “They need to use
what they know and trust,” he says. If they’ve never used a new technology or special crisis
protocol before, he said, there’s virtually no chance they’ll use it in the fog of war.
The best strategy is to figure out how to incorporate these disaster systems into the regular
daily workflow—or as he puts it, to give them “day jobs.”
One example, reported by my colleague Te-Ping Chen, involves Trello, a software company that
wanted to make sure its employees were prepared to work remotely. If any person needs to call
into a meeting, the company requires everyone in the room to open their laptops and join the
video call, too.
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.
—Mr. Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “The
Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership” (Random House).