By SMSBF Writer, Monica Plawecki
Does it actually “feel” like we’re in this together, or do you get the impression some folks are doing better than others? With the upheaval of everyday life, an economic downturn leading to the loss of millions of jobs, essential workers being asked to risk their lives, and the sheer loss of lives to the virus, it certainly doesn’t look like we’re in this together. Added to the calamity of the pandemic, we now have the political cracks–especially in our state–between the “save the economy” side of the aisle, and the “save human life” side.
Now, more than ever, we need good leadership–from every sector of our communities, the region and the nation–so that we can actually get through this together.
But, what exactly constitutes “good leadership” in times of crisis? On the one hand, swift and timely action is necessary, as is consistent messaging and accurate reporting of information throughout the crisis. According to political scientist Arjen Boin, public trust erodes during a time of crisis when leaders convey inconsistent messaging or “sugar-coat the situation.” He argues that leaders must be transparent and “open about the evolving nature of the problem” to ensure credibility and maintain the public’s trust in the government’s ability to handle the crisis (BBC).
We argue, though, that “good leadership” must also be mindful leadership–that is, leadership that embraces qualities of mindfulness, particularly demonstrating empathy, prioritizing the holistic well-being of others and ourselves, and being aware of the present.
What is mindfulness? Headspace, a mindfulness app, defines it as “the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment” (Headspace). Mindful leadership, then, entails introspection, commitment to acting intentionally, and resilience (Huffpost). By increasing self awareness and introspection, leaders can make balanced, careful judgments even in times of crisis.
We can observe the effects of mindful leadership across an organization. A Harvard study found that the stress felt by those in charge can be felt throughout a company’s organizational structure, and that leaders who “fail to manage stress in a constructive way” are perceived as “harmful or ineffective.” On the other hand, using mindfulness to manage stress can increase the psychological capital of an organization; this “capital” includes hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience. Mindful leaders, it is noted, are able to “separate themselves from stressful events,” “not take [them] personally,” and respond in a thoughtful way after carefully processing a stressful situation (Inc.).
Undoubtedly, just as leadership in an organization affects the entire organizational structure, political leaders’ handling of crises has a profound effect on their constituents’ everyday lives and overall morale. Amidst such a crisis as COVID-19, we certainly need leaders who can demonstrate resilience, empathy, flexibility, and stress management skills. While some of our mayors, governors, and federal leaders have displayed qualities of mindful leadership over the past few weeks, others have responded to the stress in a starkly different way.
On the one hand, we have leaders who continue to express empathy and strive to connect emotionally with their constituents. In the days leading up to Easter, Governor Gretchen Whitmer followed in the footsteps of New Zealand’s Prime Minister by declaring the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy “essential workers,” a reassurance to Michigan’s youngest residents, and an uplifting announcement amidst the barrage of bad news (MLive). Though certainly not the first governor to do so, Governor Whitmer has repeatedly thanked healthcare workers for their efforts and has attempted to reassure Michiganders on social media by reminding residents of our joint efforts and the need to support each other.
At the same time, the Governor has been responsive in the face of worsening circumstances as Michigan became third in the nation for coronavirus case totals. Though met by criticism from some groups, she extended Michigan’s stay-at-home order and updated social distancing restrictions to ensure stricter compliance among Michigan residents and prevent the virus’s spread as much as possible. It may be too soon to tell if her executive orders have been the key factor in curbing the spread of the virus, but Michigan’s coronavirus cases have shown signs of a plateau and new cases have gradually declined since April 3rd (Bridge Michigan).
We’ve also witnessed what many would consider is mindful leadership from Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, the largest hotspot for coronavirus cases in the nation. While at times calling out the President for exhibiting controlling, king-like behavior, Cuomo has also been praised for his ability to find common ground and successfully work with the federal government to secure supplies and funding for his state’s residents. “More interested in getting New York help to fight the outbreak than engaging the president in a war of words,” Cuomo has displayed a degree of self-restraint and self awareness, particularly of his own political blind spots as a Democratic governor working with a federal administration critical of his leadership (New York Times).
Similarly, the Governor stated in March that he would “accept full responsibility” for his actions, and that displeased residents should “blame him” as “there is no one else who is responsible” for his decisions. This suggests a level of accountability and self awareness that stands in stark contrast to President Trump, who has stated he does not “take responsibility at all” for test kit shortages and has tended to blame other nations and state-level leaders for shortcomings amidst the crisis (Business Insider).
The response at the federal level has been a different story, where, unlike Governor Whitmer and Governor Cuomo, the President has taken an authoritative–and often threatening–approach. Reserving empathy for his base and the economic elite, the White House previously promised an end to quarantine by Easter, widely regarded as a misguided and counterproductive message to Americans still awaiting the peak of the virus.
Additionally, President Trump has used his press briefings to emphasize the success of his own efforts and his viewership numbers while blaming state officials, foreign leaders and the W.H.O., rather than to reassure Americans facing a complex crisis. President Trump’s initial reluctance to take decisive action, against the advice of cabinet members and intelligence briefings, and his social media feuds over medical supplies with Governor Whitmer and other blue state governors likewise haven’t demonstrated mindful leadership based on empathy, flexibility and consensus-building.
Public opinion is starting to reflect our reactions to different leadership styles; while opinion remains divided along partisan lines over the President’s initial response to the crisis and current handling of the crisis, 65% of Americans believe the President was too slow to take action in addressing the threat of coronavirus to the U.S., and just 39% of Americans surveyed believe the coronavirus situation is being portrayed “as it really is,” suggesting a degree of distrust (Pew Research Center). Meanwhile, as of March 24th, Governor Whitmer’s job approval rating has increased to 60%, up from a previous 42% in October (Marketing Resource Group). Even more telling, a recent poll found that 87% of those surveyed approved of Governor Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic (The Wall Street Journal).
Just as we need carefully planned action from our leaders–even if those decisions are controversial–we also need empathic leadership and decision-making that prioritizes the health of all citizens, brings people to the table, and demonstrates understanding for people’s unique struggles. Our situation requires balanced thinking from leaders, rather than personal attacks and shifting blame to global health organizations; in short, it requires mindful leadership. As we enter our second month in quarantine, let’s hope we start seeing the quality of leadership we are witnessing from local leaders across America within our highest level of government.