Real Leaders

How Good Executive Coaching Might Have Prevented the COVID-19 Crisis in the United States

Regardless of political persuasion, we can all agree that over the last month, the U.S. has witnessed an epic failure of leadership across virtually every level, function, and branch of government. Last Saturday, I read a New York Times article that discussed how technical errors, bureaucracy, and leadership failures resulted in lost time and lives. As an experienced management consultant and executive coach, I felt like I was reading a report, we might have written describing a dysfunctional organization and leadership team. 

If this were a corporation, it would have faced intense scrutiny, and we would be discussing what went wrong and how to avoid such mistakes going forward. We would ask, “How did this organization fail so spectacularly, both at planning for the current crisis and in executing a responsive strategy decisively and successfully?” Inevitably, the answers would have pointed squarely at the business leaders themselves. 

Today, the failure is at the hands of government officials and policymakers. But the questions and answers should be the same. The leaders of our various institutions failed us. And they did so because they are not held (and do not hold themselves) to the same standards of leadership as our most effectively-led corporate organizations. Nor do they practice leadership as a discipline or view it as something that needs to be continuously studied, understood, and developed – regardless of seniority or experience. 

While I do not know whether any of these leaders were being coached or had the support of outside experts on organization and strategy, what is shockingly clear to me is that their mistakes were mostly avoidable. Going forward, preventing a crisis like this will require significant shifts in how government leaders view the role of leadership, what the public demands of those leaders, and how open officials are to accepting that leadership is an ongoing practice and one that requires outside support in both times of crisis and opportunity.

One of the great truths revealed here is that no one – no matter how experienced – can just operate out of what they “already know” in the world in which we live. This truth manifested catastrophically with the current COVID-19 crisis, where our leaders were unable to identify strategies, communicate them, or build consensus – and that largely resulted from those leaders being stuck in patterned and inappropriate ways of thinking. In corporate America, leaders must continuously challenge their patterns or risk going out of business. When government leaders fail to do this, lives are lost.

When we work with and coach executives and their teams, this is where we focus. The types of questions we ask and explore are: What is your default style under pressure, and where might that serve you or undermine you? How can you communicate with people who have different personalities and orientations? Where are you naturally blind, and therefore where should you naturally seek additional data? How do you communicate effectively with people who see the world differently and who you don’t have direct authority over? How do you develop communications that are clear, concise, and compelling so that you can enroll people in it? 

These are the questions that a good executive coach asks his or her clients to support leaders in growing and evolving so they can be effective. And it is incredibly apparent that these questions were not being systematically asked and answered by the government leaders we rely on. If they had – there would have been a clearer and better set of solutions much earlier. If we are to avoid crises like this in the future, corporate and government leaders must remain aware of these simple truths: 

1. Leadership is a practice, not a position

Regardless of how much experience one has or how senior one is, leadership is a craft and a practice. Just like the most successful professional athletes are coached and study the art of the game, senior leaders need to continue to work on their skills, competencies, and orientations. Even Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks never stop practicing and learning new techniques – and the same should be true for senior leaders. Amazingly, at a news conference Alex Azar, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said he had the government’s response to the new coronavirus “under control,” pointing out high-ranking jobs he had held in the department during the 2003 SARS outbreak and other infectious threats. “I know this playbook well,” he told reporters

Can you imagine a Super Bowl champion quarterback saying, “Don’t worry. I’ve been in the Super Bowl before. I’ve got this handled.” Of course not. Athletes understand that every game is different and that they need to revisit their playbook continually, or they risk losing. Any student of history knows that hubris is a critical weakness. Unfortunately, we found out that Mr. Azar not only did not know this playbook well, but he also didn’t truly understand what game he was playing. And in fairness, how could he? This was all unprecedented. But his pride let him believe otherwise. A good executive coach would have seen this immediately and helped him challenge his thinking and approach.  

2. Leaders who don’t understand and address their biases and unconscious orientations and beliefs will make critical mistakes because of them

The concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) has been around for some time. EQ is a highly sought after and valued leadership trait. When we work with leaders to help them develop EQ, we start by helping them understand themselves. Until one understands their own biases and default patterns, they cannot be sensitive to the emotional needs of others or lead effectively – especially under pressure. The above-mentioned New York Times article highlights a classic recipe for dysfunction in the conflicting orientations of Azar and Dr. Redfield – a longtime AIDS researcher who directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Mr. Azar’s take-charge style contrasted with the more deliberative manner of Dr. Redfield… [Redfield] was ‘a consensus person,’ as one colleague described him, who sought to avoid conflict.” This went unaddressed, and I doubt it was even discussed openly. And the predictable impact of this difference in styles was mistrust and operating in silos: “Mr. Azar became convinced that Dr. Redfield’s agency was providing him with inaccurate information about testing that the secretary (Azar) repeated publicly, according to several administration officials.” It is clear that the lack of emotional intelligence and the default orientation of these leaders – which went unaddressed – played a significant role in the critical mistakes we have witnessed in the handling of this crisis. 

Yet another stark example of where patterns and unconscious bias defied logic was with Dr. Stephen Hahn, 60, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Dr. Hahn took a cautious approach. He was not proactive in reaching out to manufacturers, and instead deferred to his scientists, following the FDA’s often cumbersome methods for approving medical screening.” Given the scale of the crisis and the risks well-known to all, this is further evidence of how powerful the unconscious orientations are in driving behavior. Again, a skilled coach would have noted this and brought it out into the open for dialogue and consideration. 

3. By definition, leadership is interactive; leaders who don’t work on HOW they interact will ultimately be ineffective

Intelligence is overrated. No matter how high a leader’s IQ is, their impact is determined by the quality of their interactions with others. Great leaders understand that no matter how much authority they have, their leadership is always a game of influence, and one’s level of influence is always a function of the quality of interactions with others. Early mistakes in preparing for the outbreak were exacerbated and unbalanced by historical conflicts with other vital functions that remain unaddressed. “Mr. Azar, 52, who chaired the coronavirus task force until late February, when Vice President Mike Pence took charge, had been at odds for months with the White House over other issues.”  

If we think of the White House as an Executive Board, it’s easy to see how those dynamics might have led Mr. Azar to be even more entrenched and fear-based in his interactions than he might have been otherwise. A good coach would have helped him work on his communication style and prepare for difficult conversations. When we work with clients, we often role-play critical conversations so that people bring their most skillful selves to the dialogue. Had work like this occurred, it would have lowered the intensity of his limbic response and therefore improved the effectiveness of all of his interactions.

Now add to this mix the complexities with the FDA, and we have another area where a lack of alignment in orientation and focus undermined effective interaction: “[Dr. Hahn] enforced regulations that paradoxically made it tougher for hospitals, private clinics, and companies to deploy diagnostic tests in an emergency.” Clearly, the FDA was interacting as a gatekeeper, not an enabler. 

4. Technical expertise is not leadership expertise

In many organizations, leaders rise through the ranks over time, yet what makes someone successful early on, rarely translates to success later in their career. For example, in a law firm, a good junior associate will not necessarily make a good partner because the demands of the job change radically. While every leader must understand the business they are leading, it is rarely the case that the best technical leaders make the best organizational leaders, and vice versa. Before his appointment to lead the CDC in 2018, Dr. Robert Redfield, a longtime AIDS researcher, had no experience running a government agency. While Dr. Redfield’s experience as an Army officer and life as a scientist were, no doubt valuable, they didn’t prepare him for leading an organization of the scale and complexity of the CDC. I have to wonder whether Redfield acknowledged his lack of experience and actively sought mentorship to help him manage the complexities of the role he accepted. Based on the results, I have to believe that he presumed his knowledge of virology and epidemiology was sufficient for the task at hand — it was not.

5. Great leaders ask for and act on feedback – continuously

Even with all of the above in mind, great leaders understand that they cannot see themselves clearly. We are all blind to our own impact, so great leaders continually ask for feedback and then act on that feedback. I have yet to see any evidence that this is taking place amongst the leaders charged with addressing and resolving the current pandemic. Can you imagine any of these leaders asking their teams, “How did I show up in that conversation? Where are you noticing that I’m clear or unclear? Can you help me see what I’m doing well and not well in this situation?” When we work with CEOs dealing with a crisis, we debrief every meeting with questions like these so that every session gets better based on data. Corporate CEOs see that not as optional, but as essential, because if they don’t perform, they lose their jobs. They consistently ask for feedback from their customers, their employees, and their teams because they know they can’t lead effectively without that information.

I share the emerging view that the COVID-19 crisis will change the world forever. I am hopeful that it will change our social and political dynamics and ultimately make the world a better place. I am also optimistic that it will change people’s orientation to leadership and their willingness to be coached. No one knows everything, no one is perfect, and everyone has room for improvement. In the future, I hope that all leaders will accept that getting help is a sign of strength. That demonstrating vulnerability is a sign of courage, and I hope they will embrace the truth that the more significant and more complex the role, the more critical it is to ask for guidance and get a coach. 

If our government officials had understood that, we might all be facing a very different reality right now. We can and must do better.

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