To beat COVID-19, what do we need from our leaders? Be human.
As so many of our routines have been upended, and coronavirus creates more anxiety and uncertainty by the day, we are finding refuge in our relationships.
For me, that’s a family walk after dinner, seeing neighbors from an appropriate social distance. It’s staying connected with friends in creative ways, like a Sunday church service over Zoom or a “virtual happy hour” with colleagues. It’s my four-year-old daughter skipping into a work videoconference, sparking laughs and reminding everyone of our shared humanity.
Relationships ground us. They support us in difficult times, materially and emotionally. And as research on social capital has reiterated, relationships are critical to the health of individuals, families, communities, and even nations.
Unfortunately, there’s one relationship that is not exactly healthy at the moment: the tie between people and government. To be clear, this isn’t new. Data suggests that this relationship was at a breaking point well before COVID-19. So as we navigate an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, we must understand that it’s playing out against the backdrop of another crisis — a crisis of government legitimacy that threatens the very foundations of our democracy. How leaders and institutions act now and over the coming weeks will reshape people’s faith and trust in government, for better or worse, for years to come.
Evidence of this legitimacy crisis has been on full display in the early days of the coronavirus. You see it in those who think this virus threat is ‘greatly exaggerated’, with views divided on ideological lines. Or in the maddening posts from individuals still gathering in close quarters and crowds in blatant defiance of guidance from public officials.
The initial government response has also provided plenty of examples that further undermine legitimacy. Slow Federal action reinforced a perception that the Administration was more interested in protecting its political standing than public health. The lack of transparency and clear information confused people and perpetuated anxiety. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are still trying to score political points. All of this undermines legitimacy.
On the flip side, legitimacy is restored when leaders steward their institutions in a way that engenders confidence and, importantly, when they do it with a human touch.
Legitimacy is restored by incredible public servants like Dr. Tony Fauci. The longtime NIH immunologist has become the trusted voice of reason for so many people in this storm. Why? It’s because Dr. Fauci gives it to us straight — there’s no spin or robotic talking points. He’s credible not only because of his expertise, but because of his ability to connect personally and communicate authentically with an anxious population.
Legitimacy is restored when frontline leaders make tough, unpopular calls to uphold the public good. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, like San Francisco Mayor London Breed, acted decisively, closing schools and canceling sporting events, bars, and mass gatherings before other states took those steps. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum ordered a shelter in place, even though he knew it would mean public backlash. DeWine, Breed, and Bynum merit praise not only for calm, straightforward truth-telling, but also for humbly and openly acknowledging the tradeoffs associated with their bold actions.
Legitimacy is restored when Mayors connect with their residents to share resources, guidance, and hope. I was struck by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez vulnerably sharing his own story of testing positive for COVID-19 and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot being unafraid to show the emotional impact of the crisis for her personally while she joined residents in mourning the death of a city employee.
These are powerful images of local leaders who are credible because they’re deeply embedded in their own communities.
Which brings us back to relationships, and why they matter now. For years, the prevailing models for better government have focused primarily on efficiency in service delivery. And while we absolutely need a well-coordinated public health and economic response, the complex challenges ahead require more than efficiency or command and control. Our leaders must cultivate the conditions that allow us to recover and rebuild. This is a mobilizing process that’s bottom-up, not top-down. It requires learning and adapting. At its core, this kind of systems leadership is relational and people-centered.
What Dr. Fauci, governors, and mayors are doing well — and what other leaders must embrace — is showing a human touch and leaning into relationships. Acknowledge felt needs. Listen. Empathize. Communicate proactively and transparently in a way that calms frayed nerves, draws us together, and shows us toward a better way — a way that we create together.
The stakes are high, and not just for public health or the economy. Legitimacy is in the balance. We need human-centered leaders in this fight.
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