March 13, 2020

US President Faces A Triple Threat of Leadership Crises

President Donald Trump and his administration now face three major crises occurring simultaneously. First, there’s the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., with over 1,000 cases and 38 deaths reported. Then there’s the oil price war that’s led to a drop in crude oil prices (down to $31.13 per barrel). And finally, there’s the growing threat of a global economic recession, as reflected in the stock market’s decline of 2,013 points on Monday.

It is relatively easy for leaders to look good when things go well but managing a crisis is the real test of leadership. In fairness to the President, none of these crises is of his making. That is the usual nature of crises—they occur when least expected.

How should President Trump handle the triple threat of these crises? There are six rules for leading in a crisis that every leader, including President Trump, should consider:

1. Acknowledge the reality of the situation. Acknowledging the severity of the coronavirus has been difficult for the President, particularly considering the threat coronavirus represents to the economy and hence his reelection. Initially, Trump consistently tried to downplay the crisis. In the midst of Monday’s stock market meltdown, for instance, the President tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

The President should face these realities: Now that the World Health Organization has declared coronavirus a global pandemic, every American is at risk; the rapid increases in U.S. oil and shale gas production are contributing to the global glut and driving down prices; and stock market declines are signaling a recession ahead.

The President should consider examining his approach and be more candid with the American people about the risks of the disease and its potential to spread. By understating the risks, he makes it more difficult for his administration to respond to the rapid growth of the virus and denying the severity of the issue will reduce his credibility in the future.

2. Be truthful and transparent. During a crisis people depend upon their leaders to speak the truth and to be fully transparent; if they do not do so, trust evaporates quickly. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that American’s public trust in federal governments has been in decline, with 68% believing that “it is very important to repair the public’s level of confidence in the federal government.”

To date, the President has not been forthcoming about the risks of the disease spreading, describing it as “very mild” in an interview with Sean Hannity, and even saying people with the disease could go back to work.

3. Lead from the front. As a leader, President Trump is highly visible, an operating style that can serve him well in this time of crisis. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, he has visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and participated in the White House press briefings. This week, he is actively trying to devise solutions to lessen the economic impact on the country and individuals, meeting with members of Congress. But these steps may not be sufficient to stem the crisis, as more aggressive actions inevitably will be required.

Since the oil price war resulted from issues between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—two leaders with whom the President has built strong relationships—he should broker a deal that restores oil prices to a normalized level. This will not only help both countries but will keep the U.S. oil and gas industry from massive cutbacks and bankruptcies.

4. Use your team. The President appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the coronavirus response task force, and provide daily communications, supported by leading scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The candor of Dr. Fauci and other scientists in daily briefings is building confidence that our U.S. health care leaders are doing their best to minimize the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

5. Make hard decisions. President Trump’s most difficult decisions lie ahead. In January, he banned foreign tourists who had recently visited China, and quarantined some Americans, likely slowing the initiation of the virus in the U.S., but since then he has been reluctant to acknowledge the full extent of the coronavirus threat. The tough decisions facing the President now will inevitably involve tradeoffs between protecting people from exposure to coronavirus and the economic impact that will occur as a result. For the sake of the country, he should focus on protecting people and accept the short-term economic hit; in the end the economy will recover faster if the crisis is mitigated.

6. Get ready for the long haul. The U.S. needs a comprehensive plan to keep the economy moving; otherwise, a stock market decline could turn into a full-fledged recession. The measures contemplated like paid sick leave and payroll tax reductions are good initial steps, but short term in nature. Now the President needs to address the significant economic impact if coronavirus becomes a global pandemic and create a stimulus plan to restore economic growth. One place to start is to fund a major infrastructure program to repair America’s crumbling roads and bridges, a similar step to what President Barack Obama did in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis.

President Trump’s most difficult challenges will come as the coronavirus expands, requiring even more protective measures that inevitably will slow down the economy. The collapse of oil prices will intensify the economic challenges facing the oil industry. The decline of the stock market will cause both consumers and businesses to hold back on spending on large purchases. Only visionary, aggressive leadership by the President will keep these three crises from plunging the U.S.—along with the rest of the world— into another crippling recession.

Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He is also author of the book, Discover Your True North.

This content was originally published on on 3/12/20.