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Lessons from the COVID crisis: How leaders with humility, integrity and compassion matter now more than ever

Books by Michael Dowling and Bob Woodward reveal the hope and tragedy of leadership in America today

David Brailer | September 30, 2020

I read two books last month that present starkly contrasting portrayals of leadership in our time of crisis. One is Michael Dowling’s “Leading Through a Pandemic”, a firsthand account of being at the forefront of the COVID pandemic. No one is more well-suited to manage a health care crisis than Dowling, a former professor, former state secretary of health and a highly experienced health system CEO. He has been the top private health care leader in New York during its simultaneous battles with COVID, government, ignorance and daily life and lead his team to invent and re-invent faster and deeper and with more lives on the line than anyone else. Dowling is among the few who became an icon of trust and authority during a period when many other leaders shredded their own reputations.

The other book is Bob Woodward’s “Rage”, another of his epic investigations into a President – in this case, President Trump as the COVID crisis hit. This book shows in detail through hours of recorded interviews how and why President Trump failed his most important leadership test.  He ignored numerous warnings and failed to act when he was warned. Woodward documents how he failed to tell the truth, instead spreading capriciously fatal lies. He manipulated fears, exploited divisions and left state and local leaders to fight on their own. Woodward’s now famous last sentence summarizes Trump and America during this civilization-altering crisis: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.” 

One might ask what could be learned by the juxtaposition of these two dissimilar books with different purposes, styles and approaches? These books, when read together, reveal and define the critical essence of leadership and show why leaders have real and consequential impacts on our society and lives. While there is an endless array of books and articles about aspects of leadership like vision, inspiration and innovation, these books bring into sharp focus three foundational and enduring underpinnings of leadership – the structural steel of leadership if you will:  humility, integrity and compassion. 

Humility. Humility in leadership is often referred to as leading by serving, but it is much more than that.  It is the condition of observing and seeing facts as they are, and drawing conclusions or projections based on facts without bias or distortion. The best leaders are able to see reality clearly and starkly and are able to learn and adapt as facts change. No one said it better than President John F. Kennedy: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Michael Dowling developed a pandemic plan at Northwell for more than 20 years. But the situation around them in February and March was often surprising, and things changed rapidly and in unanticipated ways.  His book is filled with examples of how they responded, made mistakes, learned, reinvented and tried again. Reading Dowling’s book, I am reminded of the stark assessment on planning by Moltke the Elder, the great Prussian General, often misquoted as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. Moltke shows exactly why humility matters. You can’t win a battle if you don’t know your opponent and can’t adapt if you are unable to learn. 

Conversely, Woodward shows how President Trump’s lack of humility made COVID so lethal.  Woodward catalogues the many times that Trump ignored or rationalized the torrent of incoming facts about the rising COVID threat. The reader can see that Trump did little to gear up the massive federal response machine when confronted with these threats because he was incapable of believing the facts or comprehending what he saw around him. He chose to listen to people who confirmed his views and attacked people who disagreed. He ignored scientific data and endorsed bogus treatments.  As if recognizing his failings, he told Woodward several times that he hadn’t learned anything during his time as President. America is suffering because Trump is truly guilty of one of Moltke’s lesser known aphorisms, “In the last analysis, luck only comes to the well prepared.” 

Integrity. If humility is about being honest with yourself, integrity is about being honest with others.  Ike said it best, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.” Dowling’s book is a paean to integrity. He shows how he and his team made decisions based on evidence and data and, more importantly, how they shared this data widely, so everyone knew the challenges ahead. He demonstrated mastery of the key success factor in crisis communications – rapidly share information that is accurate and complete. He shared factual and honest information with the public that could help save lives and reduce the fear that drives destructive behavior during crises.  Dowling was also influential in the early days of the battle between scientists, who want to understand what is happening and to get the facts out, and politicians at every level of government, who want to control facts in order to manipulate public perception. 

Contrast this with President Trump.  Woodward shows how Trump was briefed in January and February that COVID would be catastrophic but told the opposite to the American public. He reports on how Trump staffers ensured that federal agencies, including the vaunted CDC, would not share data harmful to the Potemkin Village image of an America devoid of COVID.  He reports that Trump denied responsibility for the pandemic in America and gave himself at A+ grade for his leadership.  And, we have seen how the Trump Administration has tried to muzzle and discredit the scientists who report information to the public. They were treated like political opponents, as if following science was a dogma or political philosophy rather than a way of observing the world around us.  Federal agencies are still today fighting with the White House over providing accurate data to the public and bringing vaccines to market in a safe and trusted manner. 

Compassion. There is no more important role of a leader than creating a positive and compassionate culture. Ronald Reagan once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”   Michael Dowling has this on full display as he explains why every person needs to understand that they play a critical role in the mission of the organization and that they make a difference in the lives of ill people. Dowling sees that it is essential for leaders to demonstrate through their own behavior the essence of an organization built around caring for others. He does this in large part by stating repeatedly and loudly that Northwell cares for its own team members first and foremost.  The message is clear:  We will look after you while you look after others. Northwell’s “Tranquility Tents,” where clinicians could get some needed downtime, became iconic in New York. 

Contrast this with how Woodward shows how COVID has become one of Trump’s most useful tools for creating discord, mistrust, polarization and division. Woodward reports that the human and social consequences of COVID never came up in his hours of conversation with Trump. He shows how Trump’s lack of empathy or compassion was behind the federal government leaving problems with testing, PPE and ventilators on states, pitting governors against each other. We have seen the lack of compassion in Trump’s claim to staffers in the Roosevelt room in early COVID, as reported by Olivia Troye, former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who also served on the coronavirus task force, that maybe COVID was a good thing since he would no longer have to shake hands with “those disgusting people” at his rallies. 

Trust in leaders – both public and private – has decayed over many years. This is in part due to a failure of confidence in institutions but has also happened because too many leaders behave as if they value money, fame or followers more than they value character, respect or trust. Public officials are often held to higher standards and subjected to higher levels of scrutiny than private sector leaders, but we are also more vulnerable to failures among public leaders. Amidst all the chaos and wreckage of 2020, America should demand leaders who can rebuild public and private institutions and regain public confidence through the strength of their honesty, dignity and wisdom. 

 

 

About the Author

David Brailer, MD, PhD, is the Founder and Chairman of Health Evolution

David Brailer is known around the world for his leadership and entrepreneurialism in health care. Over the past three decades, Dr. Brailer has built a variety of private and public-sector organizations. From 2007 to 2017, Dr. Brailer was managing partner at Health Evolution Partners, a fund that invested in companies with the potential to transform health care delivery. Prior to that, Dr. Brailer was appointed by President George W. Bush as the nation’s first National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. From 1996 through 2002, Dr. Brailer was founder and CEO of CareScience, a health care information management company. He earned his M.D. from West Virginia University and his Ph.D. in economics from The Wharton School. Dr. Brailer serves on the Board of Directors of Walgreens and as a board member or chairman of five private health care companies.