This opinion piece was originally published by CNN.
Dear Mr. President,
In the last day, your administration has talked of winding down the coronavirus task force and now you’ve said it will continue indefinitely. Will you be at the meetings and briefings? Or will you speak separately, and undercut or contradict your experts?
So many of my military colleagues have tried to help, and all understand that you don’t take criticism, and even suggestions are poorly received. But the United States needs real leadership now, and others around the world are also looking to us. So, as someone who has spent most of my life leading, studying or teaching leadership, may I respectfully offer some observations that may be helpful? And may I speak frankly? This might be your last chance to get it right.
First point, leaders have to gain trust. It doesn’t come automatically with the office. You have to earn it by your performance. The public must see and believe that your public duties come first, before every other interest — business, friends, or even family. And in the case of this medical emergency, before your re-election, too! When you worry about polls and rallies, you’re undercutting the public’s trust and faith in your leadership.
Another thing about trust: be careful what you say. Any statements later proven false will hurt your reputation. Don’t blurt out observations and possibilities — we know you were just thinking out loud about the bleach and disinfectants — but every statement you make is going to be judged. That is the burden of leadership. You can’t be flip-flopping on what you say — and, honestly, you would be the first to point that out in an opponent. You cannot lead if people cannot trust you.
Second, leaders have to have a strategy and a plan to get there. You’re absolutely right to recognize that ultimately, we have to be able to reopen the economy. And you gave us a pretty good strategy for reopening the country while we wait for the vaccine — but you seem to be undercutting your own strategy by encouraging protesters to demonstrate for an earlier opening. Why undercut your own strategy? Unless you’re slyly pushing to open the economy earlier in order to have good “numbers” for your reelection. Of course, this goes back to the trust issue.
Mr. President, if you deal successfully with Covid-19, you will likely be reelected. If you prematurely push opening of the economy, and the US lurches into repetitive spikes of Covid-19, you will likely not be re-elected, so, first things first.
Third, leaders accept their responsibilities. You are America’s highest elected official: the whole executive branch works for you, and anything they do or say is ultimately your responsibility. No one expects you to be perfect, but as the sign on Harry Truman’s desk famously pointed out, “the buck stops here.” Admit some mistakes, or acknowledge that your projections or views have changed, and explain why. If you dodge responsibilities now, you won’t be able to claim credit when we win this struggle. And by the way, stop blaming your predecessors — that makes you look small, and you sure don’t want that.
Fourth, top level leaders aren’t expected to know everything — but they are expected to bring in the right experts and use their expertise. Your experts are constantly dodging and weaving around your public statements. It’s obvious you have them on a razor’s edge of intimidation and fear. You have all the power — you don’t need to lead that way. When they give you inaccurate information or disproven projections, replace them, and hold them accountable, but otherwise, put them out front to discuss the technicalities, and don’t dispute, correct, or go beyond them in public.
Fifth, leaders show empathy in times of trouble. Already American losses are staggering in personal terms, and many of these losses are among your blue-collar supporters. These people have families, loved ones, friends, and colleagues who expect your empathy, and if they have a sense that these losses are nothing but a “number standing in the way of your reelection,” they will hold you personally accountable. Show empathy everyday, visit the families, talk to the doctors and nurses on the front lines, console, console, console — this is what leadership demands.
Sixth, good leaders pull their teams together. To some extent, you have carved out a new political model for modern America, built on supercharging your base, at the expense of others in the electorate, as well as delivering the “goods” in terms of judgeships, deregulation and tax cuts. It worked well enough to get you elected, and to keep money coming into your election campaign. But in this crisis, as we say in my part of the country, “that dog won’t hunt.” You now have to lead a country, not win an election, and you know it. The United States, every one of us, is your “team,” whether it is in maintaining social distance, pushing forward innovative solutions, or helping to work the logistics of meatpacking or supplying face masks — and whether they are Democrats or Republicans.
Please, don’t seek out more enemies — it only hurts everyone. While the federal government rightly relies on the states for an assessment and response to local conditions, this is your opportunity to go beyond partisanship and pull the country together. Please stop the silly competition with those Democratic governors — it totally undercuts you and your Administration. You could be so much more effective if you brought them onto your team and built mutual respect.
Seventh, good leaders lead by example. So, if you want people to wear face masks, wear a face mask. The Honeywell visit Tuesday was good, but you vitiated its success by not publicly wearing a mask. And of course, the press made a big deal of it, because they believe you’re one of those “do as I say, not as I do” leaders — and that goes back to the trust issue again.
Eighth, good leaders have a thick skin, at least in public. They don’t allow their fears, resentments, or unscripted anger to show — it’s about control. In private, sure, they get mad, they nurse their wounded pride, and they try to learn from every event and comment, and move on. As we used to say in the military, “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” where it gets bruised and bumped constantly. So please, stop swatting back at every comment that hurts you — that may work to get a Twitter following, as entertainment, but it is not an effective way to lead.
So, Mr. President, I know this advice sounds harsh, and it’s painful, but you are a wily strategist, a fact that your opponents often misunderstand. You are also an able negotiator, as you most recently proved by making the deal for the 10 million barrels per day cut in oil output. And you are very tough and resilient. Those are all good qualities. But you cannot be an effective leader without relentless and painful self-examination. Take it in or reject it, after due consideration.
My aim in writing this is to help you, because today, the United States and indeed, the whole world, needs leadership — and though some may not like it, you’re the man. We ALL need you at your best!