Leadership in the Time of Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages both people’s health and pocketbooks, the crisis offers a fascinating study into leadership ranging from the White House to your farm office.
Five years from now, we will have nearly perfect hindsight as to what approaches to leadership worked well and what tactics failed miserably. In the middle of the pandemic, however, no one has that luxury. We all must muddle through, using our best judgment.
Having said that, though, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there is one approach you most definitely want to avoid. It’s the White House approach of malignant narcissism, where every action taken is predicated on how it reflects on the President and his re-election prospects.
The greater lessons might come from the actions of Governors. Most have performed admirably, but there have been extremes. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order requires stores larger than 50,000 square feet to cordon off areas that offer carpet, furniture and paint. If people in Michigan want to paint their kitchen while sheltering in place, I guess, they’ll have to go to their local hardware store—if they even exist.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum is South Dakota’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem, who has pretty much left it up to each citizen to decide for themselves how much social distancing—if any--they’ll do. The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, which processes 5 percent of the nation’s hogs, had to close in mid-April because more than 700 of its employees were infected with coronavirus. While Noem correctly asserts sheltering in place would not have prevented the plant shutdown since pork processing in an essential business, it might have prevented those 700-infected employees from mingling with Sioux Falls’ other 180,000 residents.
The dairy industry has been its own case study in crisis leadership. The crash in milk markets has necessitated the need for government assistance for dairy farmers. There really can be no argument about that though the Margin Protection Program was designed, at least for smaller producers, for just such a Black Swan event.
So the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) along with the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) came up with a plan to compensate producers for lost sales. Almost immediately, producers in northern states objected because of perceived inequities and came up with their own plan. Minnesota producers then came up with a simplified plan of their own.
In the end, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue pretty much ignored all this advice anyway. Limited by budget, he set up his own schedule of direct payments that will be a fraction of those requested.
I would argue these responses—from the White House to the governors’ mansions to industry—are the culmination of five decades of political polarization. The gut response is to argue what is best for me, not what is best for all of us.
Mike DeWine, the Republican Governor from Ohio who has spent more than 40 years in public office, has largely been lauded for his state’s approach to the pandemic. He recently told the New York Times: “When I’ve made mistakes, it’s usually because I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t ask enough questions, I didn’t ask the right people, I didn’t drill down deep enough into the facts.”
And once we find the facts, we need to find what is best for the common good. Jaime Castaneda, NMPF senior vice president for policy strategy and international trade, argues the coronavirus crisis carries the same urgency as World War II and the Great Depression. “This is the time to be united,” he says.