Leaders rise during times of crisis

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March 16, 2020

Leaders rise during times of crisis

Written by Robin V. Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

Crises create and destroy leaders — and which leaders fall and those whose soar, can be surprising. Winston Churchill, until days before his installation as a war prime minister, might have been a historical footnote. A failure as a First World War minister, a disloyal partisan, and a semialcoholic struggling writer. Jimmy Carter, pre-hostage crisis, might have been a historic president who saved dozens of hostages, and returned his nation to confidence and stability post-Watergate.

Friday marked the hinge moment in Justin Trudeau’s leadership crisis test. His partner in life diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, his country’s economy on the verge of a serious reverse, national tensions already at levels not seen in a generation; and an opposition unwilling, so far, to join in a national project to meet this perfect storm as partners rather than hostile partisans.

The challenges of crisis leadership are unique in that an effective leader needs to achieve what appear to be a contradictory set of needs and goals. They must be focused on outcomes not process, while ensuring that the machinery of government is precisely aligned to get there. They need to convey confidence about getting through the battles victorious, without appearing to be flogging fairy-tales for personal political benefit.

They must act, be seen to be bold and courageous, but avoid reckless gambles. And yet … what gamble could have appeared more reckless than attempting to save hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from a beach on the coast of France, in a fleet of fishing boats, all the while under heavy German bombardment.

There is already an embarrassing contrast between Donald Trump’s real estate hustler style as crisis president and Joe Biden’s stable, steady and authentic approach to crisis, a role he has played successfully at several moments in personal and political life. It seems likely to enhance his status as a candidate and have ongoing political consequences for the hapless president.

Few leaders always get crisis leadership right, fewer still their first real high-wire test. One might see this as far from Justin Trudeau’s first crisis. His childhood was marked by managing an often painful home environment. The sudden loss of a beloved sibling is always a personal crisis. Yet this is his first public national crisis as a leader.

Canadians are rocked, anxious about their families, their savings, even in many cases their jobs. Watching the news is to subject yourself to an unending pounding of one frightening story on top of another. In the next two weeks we all need to find confidence that those in charge are capable of righting the ship and navigating this terrifying passage.

History records a variety of musts for leaders at the edge of similar abysses: daily, truthful and credible reports directly from the prime minister and his senior ministers to Canadians; proof that goals announced are being delivered, in this case a massive ramp-up of COVID-19 testing and economic buttressing; a visible confidence, determination and empathy about the nightmares testing many Canadians; and no phoney minimization, no baloney about achievements — a la Trump. Under-promise and outperform.

When George W. Bush stood on the ashes of the World Trade Center, to the surprise of many, he conveyed many of those qualities immediately. He went from being seen as a somewhat shallow and self-interested minor politician to a global leader in hours. Whether you agreed with his military overreach or not, no one could doubt that Pierre Trudeau was a courageous, tough and determined leader following the discovery of a cabinet minister’s body in the trunk of a Montreal car.

Crisis leadership experts emphasize as a quality near the top of the must-have list: self-awareness. Honesty about your excesses and gaps, a clear-eye about what you are good at and not, and a concentrated effort at suppression of the temptations of ego and vanity.

Let us hope that Jagmeet Singh, Erin O’Toole, Peter McKay and the premiers, together understand this is a time to support national leadership in a crisis. Equally, important is Justin Trudeau and his government’s hard determination to avoid partisan temptations, spinning, and points scoring.

Canadians will reward those leaders who drop the gloves, take the risks in political co-operation, and together see us successfully return to a peaceful place of order and good government. Shaken, bruised, probably, but proud of our collective achievement at a testing moment for the nation, and the world.