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Adaptive Leadership to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic

I am scared and confused. Walking home from a (physically distant) run in Central Park a few days ago, I felt for the second time in my life briefly scared for my safety because of the color of my Chinese skin. The next night, I tossed and turned with vivid apocalyptic dreams. Surprisingly, it isn’t my fear of losing loved ones to COVID-19 or my anger at racist attacks that bothers me most. It’s the recent proposals in the U.S. to sacrifice lives to “protect the economy” that have shaken me most deeply. I am shocked by the ease with which some authority figures are openly valuing the stock market’s health over people’s health.

Public health experts have explained why reopening the economy by Easter is a bad idea. Experts in various fields have questioned the fitness of President Trump and other authority figures pushing this strategy to lead during this pandemic. I share their concerns and at the same time think there are other forces at play that better explain why this strategy is appealing to authority figures. While President Trump has since withdrawn his proposal to reopen by Easter, understanding the leadership and authority dynamics shaping his actions could reveal options to strengthen the U.S.’s pandemic response.

Leadership versus authority

Based on the adaptive leadership framework I studied and helped teach at Harvard University, we can see what’s happening more clearly if we distinguish leadership from authority. Generally, authority figures provide three key services: direction, protection, and order. We look to authority figures for clear answers and solutions. Authority has an important role during crises — without a base level of direction, protection, and order, many of us would be too overwhelmed to function. We would lack necessary coordinating mechanisms for rapidly responding to the situation. Countries such as Singapore have successfully controlled COVID-19 through strong authoritative actions, among other factors.

While authority is often sufficient to address technical challenges where a known solution, even if highly complex, is available, authoritative action alone falls short in the face of adaptive challenges where there are no known answers and where widespread changes in behavior are necessary. Some parts of pandemic responses rely on existing knowledge; for example, using epidemiological models and health system capacity assessments to identify physical distancing and closing non-essential businesses as effective strategies. Other parts, such as mobilizing millions of people to develop new capacity to make their lives work in isolation without paychecks and with kids at home and developing new policies and programs to buffer widespread losses, require leadership.

Times Square billboard. Source: Business Insider

Pressures on authority figures

Taking President Trump as an example, he experiences immense pressures as the highest authority figure in the U.S. Public health measures such as physical distancing and closing non-essential businesses require us to undergo significant losses of livelihoods, sources of joy, and other things. These are in addition to losses of life, health, stability, and security directly caused by COVID-19 itself. People feeling the deep pains of these losses are looking to authority figures like President Trump for direction, protection, and order. Many of us are desperately craving straightforward solutions and reassurance that we might not really have to experience all these losses. President Trump’s false proposal that we can both minimize economic losses and protect public health by reopening by Easter is a bit more understandable in the context of the immense pressures he faces to deliver a win-win strategy, even if one doesn’t exist.

Leadership options

The adaptive leadership framework defines leadership as the activity of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive rather than a role one is born into or given. What options might authority figures like President Trump have to exercise leadership?

First, he could spend time learning about, then publicly acknowledging and empathizing with the deep loss and grief we are all experiencing. Instead of conjuring false reassurances and win-wins, he could apply what he learned to engage us, the over 320 million people of the U.S., to both comprehend why we must comply with and support public health measures, and work to protect those of us who are vulnerable. Collectively taking responsibility is the only way for us to stop the spread of COVID-19. Challenging everyone to shoulder this responsibility for as long as we need to would likely not lead to short-term rises in the polls. Such a challenge might even require President Trump to risk his reelection chances. Leadership, especially when such significant losses are involved, is difficult and dangerous work.

Leadership to address the COVID-19 pandemic could be mobilizing us to move beyond traditional ways of assessing how the economy is doing and what resources are available. It might even mean reorienting our economy toward a healthier and more sustainable future. It might look like challenging us to rethink what it means to co-exist interdepedently and support each other, especially those of us who are vulnerable. Perhaps leadership could involve authority figures like President Trump taking a step back and enabling public health agencies and state and local governments to creatively experiment with interventions to mobilize us to adapt to our new health, social, and economic realities.

These are initial hypotheses from my perspective as a student and practitioner of public health and adaptive leadership. I hope for all our sakes that President Trump, as the highest authority figure in the most wealthy country in the world, will rise to this challenge. Regardless of his and other authority figures’ actions, we all have opportunities to exercise leadership. I hope that each of us will examine our spheres of influence, whether we are staying at home or working on the front lines of the pandemic response, for opportunities to mobilize those around us to tackle this challenge and thrive.

Matt Hughsam was a 2017–2018 Global Health Corps fellow with Evidence Action. He is currently the Learning Collaborative Manager at citiesRISE where he supports people to lead and organize effectively to advance mental health justice globally.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Renato Castelo, Claire Chaumont, JJ Edge, Jeff Glenn, Ron Heifetz, Brian Hughsam, Kim Leary, Jacquie Martin, and Deanne Wah for their feedback, and to Farayi Chipungu, Ron Heifetz, and Hugh O’Doherty for teaching me this framework. Check out this free online Acumen Academy course if you are interested in learning more about adaptive leadership. If you are interested in exploring these ideas further or collaborating, you can reach me at

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.



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Matt Hughsam

Matt Hughsam

I’m committed to supporting people affected by health injustices to lead and organize effectively. Working in global mental health with