Leadership in Crisis

Leadership is a word that gets thrown around a lot, particularly in politics. While there are many attributes folks can point to that get characterized as “leadership attributes,” for the most part, leadership is an intangible.  In many cases it comes from look and feel, in some cases, it may just be a gut feeling.  One of the most difficult things about leadership for public officials is that unlike tax revenue, or unemployment, other economic indicators or metrics, it can’t easily be measured outside of election results and public opinion polls.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (Photo Courtesy of Forbes)

Throughout our history, the legacy of political leaders has been forged by crisis.  Eisenhower by World War II, JFK by the Cuban Missile Crisis, George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani by 9/11 – these were all times when tremendous crisis impacted the short- and long-term view of an American leader.  Few would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic and the response thereto have impacted the view of Governor Andrew Cuomo as a leader.  Regardless of your opinion of the Governor, he has displayed many of the defining characteristics of strong leaders in this crisis.

Don’t take this the wrong way – we have plenty of issues upon which we disagree with the Governor, and there is a time and a place to have that dialogue.  However, UJP has noticed and appreciated one particular leadership trait the Governor has recently displayed – the ability to adapt.  Perhaps out of concern for being called a flip-flopper (thanks John Kerry), modern politicians tend to avoid changing their publicly stated positions and course correcting.  However, any good leader in the private or public sector knows that rigid conformity to a stated approach in the face of strong contrary indicators is not just bad leadership, it’s a recipe for weakening both their public support and leadership profile.

Early last month, the Governor made a shocking statement: he would order the National Guard to seize ventilators from Upstate facilities and send them to hospitals downstate in need.  In the face of overwhelming bipartisan opposition to this plan (and data showing it to be an unnecessary step), the Governor relented a few days later, issuing a more logical executive order to allow for practical redistribution of equipment between facilities.

In late April, the Governor indicated a reluctance to opening the State back up on a regional or County basis, saying “realize the consequence of what you could do opening one region but not the other regions, and how you could flood that one region and give them a host of problems they never anticipated.”  Following a good deal of pressure from business owners, local officials, and the media, in the last week, he rolled out new regional criteria for reopening, based on clear data and metrics.

As we turn to the topic of reopening, leadership at all levels of our government – needs to move swiftly, carefully, and in a transparent nature to address the economic devastation we are all grappling with as the result of the pandemic.  Upstate businesses, educational institutions, healthcare providers, and other employers have seen a massive hemorrhage of revenue, despite not seeing the predicted infection rates experienced in New York City. 

As we noted last week, it’s the right time for the Governor to continue to show his strength as a chief executive by engaging a team within his administration tasked with accelerating decisions on the regional reopening schedule. We are aware the regional plans for reopening have been submitted, but local officials who prepared them tell us there is no transparency on the review process beyond waiting for the Governor’s approval.

We get it that leadership means making tough decisions.  But it also means doing so in a clear and transparent manner.  It means delegating and empowering your team. Undue delays waiting for the chief executive to be involved in unnecessary details aren’t helpful to our regional leaders and businesses as they strive to restart economic activities while staying within the Governor’s guidelines.

Adjusting to dynamic situations, insisting on transparency, and delegating and empowering your team are keys to leadership success.  The Governor has shown that he can deploy vital leadership traits.  Let’s encourage him to continue to evolve and work together with leaders around the state to transparently and collaboratively accelerate Upstate’s recovery.