Queen Elizabeth II at a concert in honor of her birthday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Flickr user Raph_PH.
There are not many upsides to a pandemic, but COVID-19 has offered many lessons in crisis leadership. It turns out that quite a few public figures are pretty good at it, and a surprisingly broad range of styles seem to work for different circumstances and audiences.
There is inspirational leadership, the sort displayed on Sunday by Queen Elizabeth II in her broadcast address to the United Kingdom. There is the advocacy of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and some governors, including J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who litigate their constituents’ needs for more resources in every available forum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been perhaps the most vociferous such advocate. But Cuomo’s leadership is even more noteworthy for its hand-on, centralized style. Cuomo is the battlefield general who personally analyzes incoming intelligence and directs troop movements in real time.
Cuomo’s style is in distinct contrast to that of President Donald Trump, a motivator and delegator. Trump does not see a single path to victory. Instead, he envisions an entire highway system where many routes lead to a destination that he would call “a powerful victory like the world has never seen,” or words to that effect. The president often speaks off the cuff in big-picture or aspirational terms, such as his musing last month that at least some parts of the United States might return to normal life by Easter.
If Cuomo is the general who rides onto the battlefield, Trump is the captain on the bridge who issues commands to his crew. At their respective daily press briefings, Cuomo does almost all the talking, while Trump surrounds himself with experts and officials, to whom he regularly yields the podium. This allows them to become leaders in their own right; Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have gone from anonymity to celebrity in a matter of weeks.
Sharing the spotlight serves Trump well, even as he commands top billing. Trump has permitted his subordinates to curb or even correct his own verbal excesses at least some of the time. By doing so in public, these experts reassure a sizable slice of Americans that while the captain may be confident in his own sense of direction, he is also listening to someone who can read a map. Despite his earlier speculation about an Easter letup, Trump extended his national stay-at-home guidance to April 30.
Yet in this group of leaders, the British queen’s leadership stands out. While the others I have mentioned all have official roles in government, she does not. It cannot be easy for someone who lives in the largest and longest continually occupied castle on Earth to relate to her subjects as one who understands their trials and shares their tribulations. But since the 93-year-old monarch has virtually no administrative power, she leads by winning and keeping her citizens’ loyalty, affection and respect.
This particular queen, whose reign is the longest in her nation’s history, is especially well suited to this moment. She has prepared for it since childhood.
The future queen was barely into her teens when World War II broke out. That year her father, King George VI, made the broadcast address memorialized in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.” A year later, after months of German air attacks and the evacuation of most other children from southern England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to the 14-year-old princess to record her first public speech. The royal family had earned a lot of respect by waiting out the Blitz at home, where Buckingham Palace was bombed and Windsor Castle was under threat. (While Londoners bunked underground in tube stations, Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, spent some evenings in the castle dungeons to avoid possible German bombing.)
Princess Elizabeth’s address aimed to ease her fellow children’s homesickness. Recorded at Windsor Castle, it was broadcast nationally on the BBC “Children’s Hour” program and around the world on shortwave. This week the queen recalled that maiden speech to once again rally her country.
“Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones,” the Queen told a citizenry that has been ordered to remain at home except for essential activities. “But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do. While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. But for now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.”
Of course there have been failures of leadership in this pandemic, as well as successes. Some of those failures have led to avoidable loss of life already. There will be more. But let’s save analysis of those errors for another day.
For now, we can observe that there are many forms of leadership. A population that finds itself under siege and wonders when – or whether – life can return to what it was naturally turns to its leaders. Those men and women have already demonstrated some of the many ways they can provide solace and motivation.