A Very Tough Challenge for Leaders

The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated one of the most challenging aspects of leadership – trying to realistically assess an uncertain future and then demonstrating the courage to make decisions about it today. Unfortunately you cannot Monday morning quarterback the future, and that creates a great deal of tension for leaders.

At the time of this writing in early March 2020, many had been saying that there has been an overreaction by a number of leaders in how quickly they shut down upcoming work, travel, events and so forth. These folks would go on to cite facts about how relatively small (at the time) the scale of the virus was, and how it paled in comparison to the more typical flu (very deadly in its own right), which occurs every year without major disruptions. My guess is they could make a pretty compelling case.

Others would say that there has been no overreaction, rather sound judgment in eliminating a potential disaster from occurring. These decisions have been made in order to derail the major path the virus is spread (human to human), regardless of the lack of any proven, factual track record of the overall impact the virus will have. Once again, this seems to be a reasonable course of action.

It is easy to see how big decisions involving a lot of uncertainty can create an almost no win situation for a leader. Here is what i mean by that.

Think about the backlash George Bush (or Bill Clinton) would have likely faced, had he, prior to 9/11, imposed the kind of airport security we have today. Terrorism was recognized at that time, it was just not a pressing issue to most people in the US. (Kind of like Coronavirus in February, 2020.) Yet had Bush executed this decision, people would have been calling for his head – for yet another example of the stupid government wasting money and ruining a good thing. However, had this been done and eliminated that dreadful event… well, we now know the impact of what that choice would have been, but only because the disaster actually occurred.

And that is the dilemma. A so-called pre-emptive strike, which actually prevents a potential catastrophe from ever occurring, can be viewed by critics as solving a problem which never existed. It is simply impossible to know just how important the original decision actually would be. With no catastrophe, we have no way to assess the impact of the decision. But after a tragedy has occurred, it is much easier – and measurable – to go back and complete a post mortem to determine the decisions that could have, or should have, been made to prevent it.

So for Mr. Bush, he could  either be viewed as an idiot for imposing outrageous security restrictions on people when there was no need, or an idiot for not doing everything possible to prevent 9/11, including tightening airport security. 

Consider another example. How might President Obama have been viewed if several years ago, he would have allocated billions of taxpayer dollars, and at the same time publicly tried to convince world leaders to shift their attention at the moment from climate change to a focus on preventing a possible outbreak of today’s Coronavirus. Even his own supporters would have questioned his judgment, and he would have been lampooned for his obvious incompetence. However should that work have been pursued and successfully achieved, think about the impact today.

Don’t misread this message. 9/11 and today’s Corona pandemic are not the results of thoughtless “non-decisions” by these two Presidents. We cannot expect any leader to accurately predict everything that could possibly happen in the future, and then make contingency plans for every potential scenario. But we sure like to hold them accountable for doing exactly that.

That is why we need courageous leaders, people willing today, to make thoughtful and tough decisions about what are merely possibilities for tomorrow.  They know they will take some heat, and that they will make some big mistakes. How could they not?

Any decision is easier when there is a direct cause and effect relationship of the decision. But sometimes, that relationship does not clearly exist, especially when dealing with the unknowns of the future.

To put it in perspective, your company leaders proclaim they are going to invest heavily in solving a problem, which hardly exists today, and seems highly unlikely that it ever will. And to pay for it, they are cutting all salaries and benefits by 25% today. How might you feel about that move at the very moment it is announced?”

Although labeled a pandemic, should COVID-19 turn out to be a very important concern (like the flu), but not an unstoppable annihilator of everything in its path, the first group of critics will shout “we told you so,” citing how gullible or political all the leaders were who needlessly shut down businesses and messed with our lives, The second group will be shouting just as loudly about how their quick and decisive actions actually saved the day, stopping the uncontrollable spread of a deadly virus in its tracks. Truth be told, we may never be able to factually and conclusively substantiate either perspective. And frankly I really do not care who “wins the debate.” My gut tells me collaboration vs. one-upsmanship is a better strategy for everyone when seeking solutions to really tough problems. And right now, the Coronavirus certainly seems to fit that category.

One thing I have discovered over the years is that in any given circumstance, there is a worst-case scenario which no leader is willing to accept – ever! My assumption is that the very worst case of Corona may look very, very grim, and by default, must be avoided at all costs. If so, that would prompt some unprecedented, overreactivelooking pre-emptive moves to ensure that outcome can never happen.

I propose that we save the Monday Morning Quarterbacking until we have overcome this extraordinary threat facing us, and focus more on pursuing actions, individually and collectively, to take care of ourselves and each other during these truly uncommon circumstances. That is at least what I plan to do.

Share Your Thoughts