Leadership in the Time of Plague

By Shlomo Maital

New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

   Even though I live in Israel, I find myself glued to the TV nightly, watching New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s addresses and press conferences on CNN. This is true of much of America, including President Trump, who schedules his own TV appearances in order not to conflict with Cuomo’s.

   As I watch Cuomo, I ask myself, what is leadership? What are the key qualities of political leaders, in the time of plague? Why is Cuomo’s leadership so effective, in contrast with Trump’s and other political leaders, including my own here in Israel?

   A few tentative answers. First, blunt honesty. Cuomo tells it like it is. His warnings carry weight and credibility. (Compare with, say, Trump, whose superlatives, great, terrific, perfect, ring hollow – remember, if a leader lies to us once, we will forever doubt ANYthing he or she says in future). Second, command. Cuomo has done his homework and he’s smart. He commands the numbers and the complexity of the situation and explains it clearly to people.   Third, compassion. Cuomo is a touch leader, pragmatic, hard-nosed. But when he talks about his mother Matilda, and saving her if needed, and saving all us old people, he shows empathy and sympathy. Leaders have that combination of toughness and soft compassion, used in every case where appropriate. Fourth, pragmatism. Use common sense, figure out what is needed, get it done, no excuses (the Singapore formula). Fifth, Speed. Forget platitudes, we need ventilators now, hospital beds now, masks now.   Look, New York State is not Trump’s favorite. We suspect he has withheld ventilators from the nation’s strategic stockpile. New York State prosecuted Trump’s so-called charity foundation. But Cuomo has not libeled or criticized Trump by name – only Federal agencies – and it has paid off. So leaders know how to pick their enemies, with care.

I want to share an approach I’ve found useful, for myself. I’m 77 years old and made lots of mistakes in my lifetime. So have we all. And it is painful to look back on some of them. So, today, perhaps a bit too late, I use this approach: When I need to make a decision, or decide how to behave, I ask myself: Shlomo, OK, how will you feel about this decision, in 10 years, when you look back on it? Will your chest swell with pride or will your stomach turn over with shame?   Use this, and you can’t go wrong. This is the time for leadership – not just by our political leaders but by every single one of us, challenged by the situation and faced with choices – to help others effectively or hunker down and care only for ourselves.

   And in conclusion, consider these words by Thomas Paine, written during the bitter days of the American Revolution – times that try people’s souls.

   “THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated”   Thomas Paine 1776

Substitute “life” for freedom, as we battle the plague to save lives….