As the situation around COVID-19 has evolved over the past months, the American public has been whipsawed by confusion, obscurity, and contradictory information. The fragility of our system has been laid bare for all to see. What has become impossible to ignore is the critical importance of adaptive local leadership.
Some would argue Washington failed in the early stages of the pandemic to institute protocols that would have averted disaster. In some cases, it continues to fail in implementing necessary solutions, like widespread testing or a uniform reopening strategy. In the vacuum, local leaders across the nation have stepped up to the plate, serving as the voice of reason, driver of action, and shoulder of support.
In my home state of New York, Governor Cuomo has endeared himself to millions through his empathy and no-nonsense leadership amid the nation’s hardest-hit region. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, six counties across the region were the first in the U.S. to order residents to “shelter-in-place” despite lower reported coronavirus cases than in either Seattle or New York City, the most impacted cities at the time.
"As we settle into new norms, it's critical that we make adaptive leadership tools widely available, reexamine how those tools are used at all levels of society, and revisit how different groups across socio-economic strata benefit or suffer"
The coasts don’t have a monopoly on speed and resolve. Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine implemented initiatives to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, banning sports events as early as March 3rd, well before Ohio had a confirmed case of the virus. As a result of his swift actions, Governor DeWine has received praise from public health experts and representatives across parties, a stark contrast to the response received by the Trump administration.
With the coronavirus affecting every aspect of society (though not proportionately), we’ve also seen a group of leaders outside of the walls of government amass, acting on an unwavering commitment to keep communities of all shapes, sizes, and colors across the U.S. safe and healthy. In lieu of federal guidance, advocates for some of our most vulnerable populations, like Coalition for the Homeless, put forth a call to expand private spaces, resources, and outreach for the thousands of urban residents who are homeless or at-risk. The UFCW 770 union in California has called for grocery workers to be designated as emergency personnel. With 3 million grocery workers in the U.S. on the frontlines of the pandemic -- keeping their families, friends, and neighbors fed and store shelves stocked -- while, at the same time, putting themselves at greater risk of infection, these individuals are more than ‘essential’.
The private sector is also adapting. Technology companies such as Akamai, which specializes in global content delivery, cybersecurity, and cloud services, has responded to the greatest spike in global Internet traffic the company has ever experienced -- 30% year over year growth (vs. 3% on average) since the week of March 9th. It’s not just big tech stepping up to keep us connected, countless startups -- like Numina, which is providing municipalities with real-time insights on the efficacy and impact of social distancing in public space, or EVA, which is deploying its high throughput drone docking stations to combat supply chain disruptions and support the delivery of essential goods to healthcare institutions, pharmacies and home-bound elderly populations. Agile approaches such as these demonstrate inspiration amid crisis. Reflective of the resilient nature of our cities and our people in hard times, we ask, what else needs reinventing for the future?
Yes, the world around us is changing -- healthcare, real estate and retail, mass transit, micromobility, and so much more. And yes, we saw a massive stimulus bill out of D.C. that, while it aims to help, it also increases the wealth divide and doesn’t invest enough in 21st-century infrastructure or ordinary people. But as we adjust to a changing reality and work to understand how this crisis impacts our past, present, and future, what we’re seeing emerge is a return to the foundation of our democracy: power in the hands of people looking out for one another, and a shared sense that only through solidarity, will we be able to overcome.
True leadership today isn’t demonstrated by daily press briefings touting individual successes. Instead, it requires discipline. It demands adherence to scientific principles, facts, and pragmatism. It requires clear and effective communication, the ability to forge new and unlikely partnerships for the greater good, the willingness to experiment and take risks, and the vision and empathy to recognize that our actions (or inactions) today have significant implications for the outcomes of tomorrow.
Countless public and private sector leaders across the nation have acted quickly in the face of danger to protect their cities and communities from an uncertain fate, knowing that standing idle or valuing partisanship and individual power above all else comes at the cost of life (and a productive economy). As we settle into new norms, it’s critical that we make adaptive leadership tools widely available, reexamine how those tools are used at all levels of society, and revisit how different groups across socio-economic strata benefit or suffer.
There is solace in the knowledge that we will get through this together, and humankind will endure. But it’s time the federal government takes a page from the playbooks of leaders across the country -- from neighborhood mutual-aid associations to the halls of state capitols -- to understand what’s needed to persevere and emerge stronger.