What Should Leaders Do in Crisis… this Crisis?


What should a leader do in crisis? Rarely has the question felt more appropriate than it does today. Indeed, with a global pandemic that shows little signs of stopping in the short-term, there is a significant need for leaders to step up and make clear the path forward.

On April 23, famed American journalist Chris Matthews joined Fulbright University Vietnam to discuss what leaders need to do in crisis and how he’s seeing leaders perform around the world. Matthews is an internationally recognized political commentator, journalist, and public figure. He previously hosted Hardball with Chris Matthews, which aired on MSNBC for over 20 years, and also authored multiple books on politics and leadership, including books on President Kennedy and President Nixon. Matthews gave this talk as part of Fulbright’s “COVID-19 & Our Future World” talk series.

To begin, Matthews noted the remarkable success of Vietnam in fighting the coronavirus. With no deaths and a quick response, Matthews argued that the leadership of Vietnam have shown up to address the issue of this virus. Part of Vietnam’s success, Matthews argued, comes down to Vietnamese leaders upholding some of the core requirements for leaders in crisis – which will be outlined below.

After commenting on Vietnam, Matthews turned his attention to the United States and particularly the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. New York is the epicenter of the virus in the United States and has recorded nearly 20,000 deaths* attributed to the infection. However, the governor has become one of the most popular national figures in this crisis. Matthews posed the question: how can the person with the worst local situation end up being the most popular person in the response?

The reason, Matthews argues, is that leadership in crisis comes down to a few rules that you need to follow.  Governor Cuomo invariably followed those rules.

Rule No. 1 — Show up!

When faced with danger, people want to see their leaders. Matthews gives the example of a building catching on fire. When you see a building on fire, you want to see people like your local government leaders, the fire chief, and the police chief all at the scene of the action. Just by being there, they are showing that they are focusing on what matters for the community and the people.

Matthews argues that this is one of the rules of leadership that both Cuomo and President Trump have obeyed. Trump, for example, has been on national television most evenings talking about the virus. Cuomo does the same, showing up in public briefings and national media to talk about the virus and New York’s response.  

Rule No. 2 — Get the facts to the people as soon as possible

 In crisis, people are often scared. What helps the population work through those fears is an understanding of the situation. Facts are important and need to be shared by leaders as quickly as possible.  

Again, Matthews argued that this is where the U.S. governors have been good. They tell the people the latest information; they tell then what to expect, and they tell them that the problem is coming.

When faced with danger, people want the facts because they use them to protect themselves. In particular, they want the whole truth – not a candy-coated version of it. If they discover a leader is not telling the truth, they will not trust him.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo is respected today, Matthews argued, because he put the facts before his constituents. Cuomo has been direct and specific about the danger facing New York, and the fact that it was being hit first and being hit hard.

As Cuomo argued, facts are empowering. “Even when the facts are discouraging, not knowing the facts is worse. I promise that I will continue to give New Yorkers all the facts.”

Rule No. 3 — Show that you care

 Matthews argued that in crises like these, people want to know that their leaders care about them. Again, Matthews uses the example of Cuomo. Cuomo regularly talks about his mother, Matilda, being one of those he cares about and being part of the “2%” of people who could potentially die from the coronavirus. This connects his story to the broader story and shows that he thinks about the lives behind the numbers.

Even as Cuomo approaches the facts with precision and clarity, he also focuses on the back story of what they mean. Over the past few weeks, the number of daily deaths from Coronavirus in New York has been decreasing. However, Cuomo argues that any of these deaths is a devastating loss for a family – and thus a tragedy. He shows that he cares even as he is clear with the facts.

As Matthews finished his talk, he also emphasized cultural differences. For example, many of the rules that he described likely apply in most settings, but should be adjusted for the Vietnam context. In fact, Matthews argues that many of the cultural traits in Vietnam should become more prevalent in the United States – particularly a focus on the collective good over the self.

As we look forward in our talk series about the COVID-19 crisis, we’ll discuss other areas that leaders need to address and other responses from around the world.  Karen Dynan, Harvard professor and former Chief Economist of the Treasury, has recently examined the future of our global economy and the impact COVID-19 would have. Following that, we’ll also look at a specific case of Wuhan with Harvard biostatistician Xihong Lin. In particular, she’ll examine what are the lessons learned from Wuhan that can be applied more broadly.

(*) Data based on reports at the time of the discussion.

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