COVID-19, Communications and Leadership: What We’re Seeing on the Front Lines

True leaders show themselves during a crisis.

Now, a caveat: This is not a political posting.  No matter your political leanings, who you support or don’t support, this is not the time for comparing leaders to each other. We need to focus on getting through this as a nation. Caveat complete.

Right now, you can learn more about how to communicate as a leader than perhaps at any time in recent history, and these are critical lessons. Leading in a crisis is a challenge, especially when you can’t even be in the same building, let alone the same room, with your employees.

As a leadership communications expert and coach for decades, and a former news broadcaster who has interviewed hundreds of leaders, I can tell you that NY governor Andrew Cuomo is a model for anyone aspiring to be a great leader in any industry.

Leadership communications goes way beyond what you say and how you say it.  It starts with knowing who you are and what you value, and then, being able to articulate these things in a way that inspires and motivates people.

Here are seven ways that Governor Cuomo is showing exemplary leadership — ways I will coach my executive clients to emulate in years to come.

  1. THE PICTURES MATCH THE WORDS In a crisis especially, we need to believe that our leaders mean what they say and say what they mean. If they say everything is great but appear nervous, we know they are lying. If they say they are in control but look and sound like they’re not, we don’t trust them.  Essentially the Governor’s message is: We’re in a crisis. Bad things are happening and will continue to happen. But we can and will beat COVID-19 if we all do our part. His words are strong and reassuring but also – and this is important – he appears calm and in command.  There’s a “match” between what he says and how he says it. We believe him because of that “match.”  That’s excellent communication and leadership – incarnate.

  2. HE IS TRANSPARENT If you are a leader, you can’t hide from facts in a crisis.  Cuomo is providing regular, continual updates on the number of people who have tested positive and the number of fatalities in his state. He is very specific about what his administration is doing, why they are doing it, what they project in the days to come and what they expect from the public. There does not appear to be subterfuge nor hyperbole.  We feel that we are getting the straight story, for better or worse.  People need that in a crisis. They need to know that their leaders are telling them the truth, no matter how tough it may be to hear it.

  3. HE SHARES CREDIT BUT TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY Governor Cuomo always thanks and credits other leaders and health experts, but when it comes to making and owning difficult decisions, he takes full responsibility.  When he ordered all but non-essential service workers in the state to stay home, he said: “These actions will cause disruption. They will cause businesses to close. They will cause much unhappiness. I understand that and I accept full responsibility. If someone wants to blame someone, blame me. There is no one else responsible for this decision.”   Today, leaders of all organizations are forced to make tough decisions.  They need to own them. It’s the only way to get respect.

  4. HE TELLS PERSONAL STORIES Great leaders tell stories, and sometimes the more personal, the better. In a crisis that affects all families, Governor Cuomo talks about his own often. He named a new law aimed at protecting people aged 70 and older from the virus after his mother, Matilda (i.e. “Matilda’s Law.”) When admonishing young people to “stay home,” he quoted his grandfather: “Too soon old, too late smart.” And he invited his daughter Michaela to quote what he has always told his own children: “Does the risk justify the reward?”  Leaders need to learn that stories don’t have to be long – in fact, the shorter and pithier the better – they just have to make the point.

  5. HE USES CREATIVE ANALOGIES Great communicators use analogies often, but “tired” ones can make people tune out.  Right now, everyone is saying we’re in a “war” against this virus.  And if we hear it one more time….!  But you can turn a tired analogy on its head, as for example the Governor did when he said, “The ventilators are to this war what missiles were to World War II? Right? Rosie the Riveter? We can get the beds. We’ll get the supplies.  But these are people with a respiratory illness. We need the ventilators.” Originality is key when you want to get people’s attention.

  6. HE DISTINGUISHES BETWEEN FACT AND OPINION Today the lines between fact and opinion are blurred more than ever, and here also Governor Cuomo did something original (at least I had not seen it before.)  He not only verbally called out when he was speaking a “fact,” and when he was giving his “opinion;” he even displayed it prominently on the corresponding slides behind his head.  Cuomo’s action was refreshing and welcome.  As leaders, we can all learn from this.

  7.  HE MAKES US ASPIRE TO BE OUR BEST SELVES Cuomo speaking live on Saturday morning, March 21, 2020:  “My last point is practice humanity. We don’t talk about practicing humanity, but if ever there is a time to practice humanity the time is now. The time is now to show some kindness, to show some compassion to people, show some gentility.” In talking about people on the front lines, from those still bagging and delivering groceries to those working at risk in our hospitals and Emergency Rooms, the Governor said, “This is public service in stereo and on steroids.” We can say the same thing about his leadership in a time of crisis.

To all the leaders in government, academia, non-profit and especially business today – most of us hit hard by this crisis and our employees hit even harder, I say – communication is critical. What you say and how you say it matters, now more than ever. Show people who you are.  Motivate and inspire them to be their best.  In the end, that is one of the most important things that we as leaders can do to survive this crisis, and hopefully, thrive again in the future.

If you know a leader – perhaps the head of your company, a hospital executive, your Pastor,  Rabbi or Preacher, community leader or any person, no matter their position, who is helping people get through the COVID-19 crisis – please let us know.  We want to give these leaders the recognition they deserve and inspire other leaders in the process.

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