Dear Mr. President:
This letter is addressed to you from one of your foot soldiers in the fight to defeat the coronavirus. Forgive my arrogance, for I am not one of the heroes in this struggle. I’m just staying home, and even complaining about that. So, I am far from perfect. Still, you have called yourself the commander-in-chief in this war and so, I thought I’d send a note about what I believe true leadership is.
We both hail from the Vietnam War era. Due to your bone spur deferment, you did not actually serve. Neither did I; instead I chose to actively resist the Vietnam War. So, even though our reasons may have differed, I thought perhaps you’d listen to my advice, one non-vet to another, as we enjoin this current battle together. Please consider this as a “how-to” manual, a six-point primer on leadership, which can be summed up in a single short sentence (I know you like short sentences): lead by example.
First, lead by example in rallying to the needs of those who suffer the most—individuals and families stricken by this terrible enemy. Show compassion to those who struggle to breathe, who cannot hold their loved ones as they die, who face a terrifying unknown as they are admitted to hospitals overflowing with the gravely ill. Sir, I may have missed it, but I have yet to hear a ringing word of empathy for their suffering. I entreat you to draw on the examples of your predecessors—President Bush at Ground Zero, Barack Obama at Mother Zion Church. Grieve publicly, please, with and for those who must suffer these devastating times in isolation.
Next, lead on the front lines of this crisis. Earnestly thank health care professionals and first responders who courageously return to work every day knowing that their own health and their families’ wellbeing are on the line. Illustrations of their bravery are legion. I know it would be too disruptive to actually visit emergency rooms in New York or New Orleans, but be creative. Figure out a way to enlist artists and technicians to develop innovative ways to acknowledge their sacrifice, then take them viral. You can put yourself at the center of this action (I know you will), and it would be a better example than the current “Where’s Waldo” approach the public is witnessing. My old basketball coach always said that showing up is half the battle. Sir, I beg you to show up for these amazing heroes.
Third, lead among the troops—in this case, the rest of us. Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t contradict your advisors for all to see (i.e., choosing not to wear a face mask). Be humble. The phrase “we are all in this together” has become a mantra. Lay down a marker. Include yourself in the “we” so that every one of us—even those who are simply staying at home—are inspired to see things through to the end and encouraged to willingly revise our actions when the next wave of this pandemic strikes.
Next, lead among your generals, in this case the governors who have stepped into the fray, sometimes courageously. Don’t squabble, Mr. President. Don’t play politics. Like yours, theirs can also be a lonely job calling them to make difficult decisions. Encourage them. Praise them when warranted and hold them accountable when needed. Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsome have taken a significant lead. Don’t resent this; instead, show gratitude to them as commanders–your commanders–in the field.
Lead on the economy, especially for small businesses and those who lose their jobs. So far, you have lamented the economic impact of this struggle and you have been itching to start things up again. Listen to the experts, sir; as they are one of our country’s most valuable assets. And, while it is early, indications are that you have not learned from the past and are seeking again to mostly help the wealthy. Do not fall into this trap. We all need freelance operators and small businesses, both now and in the future when we return to work. If your actions demonstrate that you’ve been on their side all the time, they will be more responsive when the economy unfolds back to full health.
Finally, sir, develop a consistent communication plan that leads us in the struggle for hearts and minds. Level with the people; they are your troops in this war. Limit your press briefings to news items. Let the experts take the stage. Stop fighting with reporters. Stop seeing everything through the lens of your re-election. Be gracious, not vindictive, especially to women journalists and people of color. And look beyond the next news cycle.
Mr. President, if you follow these simple steps, I am confident that the people of this country will see you as the leader you so wish to be.
Rev. Robert Chase