With The Right Leadership, We Can Make This Our Finest Hour

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

We all know that times of crisis bring out the best — and worst — in humanity, and we’ve certainly witnessed how people are stepping up to perform once-usual tasks that now qualify as extraordinary. There are countless pandemic-related stories about people delivering essential goods to elderly or otherwise vulnerable neighbors, communities rallying around stricken families, and essential businesses that remain open to serve others despite the risks.

COVID-19 has prompted us to reflect on and re-frame the definition of a hero. We now count tireless healthcare workers, resourceful teachers, enterprising small-business owners, and intrepid delivery drivers among our courageous and steadfast saviors.

The meaning of “superhero” is forever changed.

Extraordinary times also shine a light on our leaders. We’re looking to our governments and healthcare officials for guidance and reassurance, and in recent weeks it’s become clear that we value clarity over ambiguity, focus over finger-pointing, and humility over hubris. We have no patience for politicking and an insatiable appetite for verified facts, trusted authority, and transparency. Hence, all those fan clubs springing up in honor of immunologist extraordinaire Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Above all, scared and stressed citizens of the world are responding to leaders who are demonstrating empathy and compassion. This, of course, is a leadership trait — in business or otherwise — that has gained traction in recent years, taking its place alongside decisiveness and efficiency and other critical tenets.

There’s no script for or one way of expressing empathy. It can be verbal or not. Generally, it requires connecting with the pain and suffering of others and trying to understand how they might feel.

Not all leaders are at ease sharing personal anecdotes or showing their emotions. (Most sit somewhere on the spectrum between Bill Clinton and Mr. Spock.) But giving it a go by shifting tone and focus and showing vulnerability is resonating across global borders.

Leaders who are letting their citizens in by personalizing their messages are receiving high marks during this crisis.

Take Angela Merkel. The German chancellor, often criticized for being too measured or calculated, is being praised for her calm and steady appeal in her handling of COVID-19. In her first national address on the outbreak, she acknowledged the severity of the situation (“This is serious; take it seriously”), called for solidarity, and offered hope. And, as a quantum chemist by training, she emphasized how the facts — and science — don’t lie.

But most of all, she empathized with the German people, alluding to how she grew up in communist East Germany and understands how difficult it is to give up personal freedoms. “For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity,” she said.

The people are responding. In early March, six out of 10 Germans said they disapproved of her government’s track record. That’s now reversed. The government is the most popular since public broadcaster ARD began commissioning this survey in 1997.

In the United States, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as a national favorite (much like Rudy Giuliani became “America’s mayor” following 9/11 — difficult as that is to believe now).

During his daily press briefings, Cuomo wins praise (even from his usual critics) for sure-footedly relaying the facts and answering questions clearly and simply. He is reassuring but realistic.

But it’s his empathy — expressed through his personal stories and emotional anecdotes — that make these daily dispatches must-see TV for many around the world. (Even Sky News carries Cuomo’s daily press briefings despite no longer airing President Trump’s.)

During one briefing, Cuomo confessed that his emotional response to his adult daughter’s possible exposure to the virus ran counter to what he knows about the facts. Still, he admitted on air that he questioned how he wasn’t able to protect her. What parent or child, what empathetic person can’t relate to that?

Cuomo’s on-air banter with his quarantined newscaster brother, Chris, further humanize him and his message. The back and forth — a combination of a comedy
roast and genuine affection — have gone a long way toward showing a more relatable side of the senior Cuomo.

Pre-pandemic, Andrew Cuomo had a reputation as an arrogant leader prone to bullying. Today, he is considered the calm and reassuring leadership voice of a nation, filling a void and sparking the #cuomoforpresident movement.

Another steady and reassuring voice emerged last week when Queen Elizabeth II addressed her nation. It was only her fifth such address (not counting televised annual Christmas messages) in her 68-year reign. She called for unity, acknowledged the magnitude of the moment, and offered hope.

And then she got personal, saying the moment reminded her of the first broadcast she made, in 1940, with her sister, Margaret. “We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety,” the queen said, adding, “Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones.” It wasn’t exactly an emotional address, but it was widely considered to be genuine, heartfelt, and inspiring.

That, in a global sea of frenzy, calms souls.

The queen shared her hope that Britons will take pride in how they respond to the war against COVID-19. She challenged everyone to ensure that their behavior during the pandemic will warrant praise by generations to come.

“Those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any,” said the queen. A little push of collective competition to buck up and do better for the country now and later.

Some say she took a move out of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s playbook. During World War II, Churchill famously exhorted the citizenry to “brace ourselves to our duties” so that for a thousand years after “men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Here’s hoping that, whether leading on a global or local level, in an elected position, as a brand communicator, or as a caring, empathetic neighbor, we all step up and make our future selves proud.

SVP Global Communications at Philip Morris International — award-winning PR and marketing professional, author and trendspotter — popularized “metrosexual.”

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