What does it mean to be a leader, and how can we evaluate leadership during a crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic? For many people, leadership is simply a function of job title. We look to elected officials to lead us because we think it is their job to do so. In fact, the job of congressmen and presidents alike, as envisioned by the founders of this country, is not to lead, but to serve and represent the people. In any case, leadership is not something you can confer on another person with an election or an oath of office; leadership is an interior quality, like charisma or integrity, that is only demonstrated through action.
People think politicians are leaders because they have the power to make laws and enforce them, but this is not leadership at all, it is simply blunt force.
A true leader needs neither coercion nor intimidation to accomplish great things. People will not hesitate to willingly follow the person who displays actual leadership. It is possible for a politician to be a good leader independent of his elected position, but by no means is leadership a prerequisite for the job.
As the nation’s eyes turn towards Washington, this should be painfully obvious. While Americans are fearful both for their physical health and their economic security, our so-called leaders are squabbling over legislative handouts, granting favors to lobbyists, and attempting to score cheap political points on their opponents. It is evident that most if not all of these lawmakers care more about lining their own pockets and securing reelection than actually helping or reassuring the American public. Joe Biden, who wants us to elect him the leader of the free world starting next year, has basically vanished from the public eye. If this were a job interview—and it very much is—it’s hard to see how Biden expects to impress his potential employers with such behavior.
Before any politicians, I would point to the innovators on the ground, the citizens who are coming up with new ways to keep us safe, fed, and employed at a time when some states are forbidding their citizens from leaving their homes. The real leaders are 3D printing medical supplies, figuring out new ways to deliver food, and risking their own safety to ensure that power, water, and other essential services remain functional. Where I live in Washington, DC, organizers have provided contact information for everyone working in the service industry, so that regular customers can continue to tip their favorite servers and bartenders while they are forced to go without their usual wages. In the spirit of charity, I encourage everyone to contribute, and check to see whether your own city has an equivalent service.
And what of our Commander in Chief? What role does he have to play in this, and how well is he performing it? While most people regard the president as the equivalent to a king, able to unilaterally hand down orders to magically fix whatever is broken, I’ve always thought that the job is more properly understood as a symbol and spokesperson for the country rather than a watered-down dictator. Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 virus has been sharply divisive, and it’s not hard to see why. Many think he’s doing too little, while others think he’s doing too much. I myself have plenty to criticize the president about, not the least of which is his willingness to spend trillions of dollars we don’t have on a package that, in my view, is unlikely to help the Americans who really need it right now. But one criticism he has attracted remains puzzling to me.
This week, the president has expressed hope that we can begin to reopen parts of the economy by Easter. He is urging a reevaluation of conditions at that time that may allow areas and demographics facing the least risk to resume quasi-normal operations, something everyone agrees is needed sooner or later if we are to avoid a complete economic meltdown, complete with a collapse of the food supply. For this, Trump has been attacked as reckless, ignoring the advice of doctors, and spreading false hope. I would argue that one of the most important things a president can do in times like these, however, is to keep morale up. We all remember Franklin Roosevelt’s famous rallying cry, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This was uttered during one of the darkest periods of American history, but far from providing false hope, it was an important sentiment to keep the country from sliding into depression and despair.
We are now seeing record unemployment rates as a result of the economic shutdown, and some scientists are pointing to the link between unemployment and suicide, worrying that deaths from depression and isolation may actually exceed those from the virus itself. A little hope right now, false or otherwise, may literally save lives.
I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite authors about hope. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Heretics, argues, “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all.” In other words, there is no such thing as “false” hope, and the most dire situations are the ones in which we need hope the most. I hasten to add that I do not think our current situation is anywhere close to hopeless; we’re going to weather this storm and live to tell about it. But to attack the spreading of hope by an American president seems to me the height of petty mean-spiritedness. Keep your chins up, all of you, and I’ll see you on the other side.