US presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written extensively on public leadership and character. In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Mrs. Kearns Goodwin chronicles how Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) grew through personal adversity and performed through periods of national crisis.
Quoting Abigail Adams, the mother of President John Quincy Adams, the presidential historian observed: “It is not in the calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. … Great necessities call out great virtues.”
President Lincoln led his country through a brutal civil war; FDR through the Great Depression and World War II; and LBJ through the Vietnam War and during a critical period of the civil rights movement.
Teddy Roosevelt (TR) proved an adept and decisive crisis manager during the 1902 Coal Strike and took unprecedented federal action to keep energy supplies running and the U.S. economy afloat.
TR, who as Vice-President assumed the presidency after President William McKinley was assassinated, learned invaluable leadership lessons during the crisis, including, as noted by Mrs. Kearns Goodwin:
“Secure a reliable understanding of the facts, causes, and conditions of the situation; be ready to grapple with reversals, abrupt intrusions that can unravel all plans; reevaluate options and be ready to adapt as a situation escalates; assemble a crisis management team and find ways to relieve stress.”
The health and economic pandemic engulfing the world because of COVID-19 is in the coinage of Abigail Adams, a great necessity calling for great virtues by national leaders. The global pandemic is testing and revealing the character of political, corporate and other leaders.
Some, like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, the modern father of the Southeast Asia city-state, acted decisively and quickly as the virus took a toll on China.
His actions were bold and strong. His words measured and his disposition reassuring and temperate. He has demonstrated tremendous prudential judgement.
Other leaders dithered. Some, like Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, both given to pathological narcissism, conspiracy theories and anti-scientific mindsets, proved incapable of grasping the magnitude of the threat. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially was slow off the mark.
Here at home, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis acted quickly, balancing the need for a vigorous policy response, while trying not to get too far ahead of public sentiment about restricting certain civil liberties.
Such delicate timing typically proves necessary in a crisis. A leader who moves too far ahead of public sentiment, even in a time of crisis, risks a backlash.
Democratic leaders have to bring citizens along with clear and compelling reasons, especially in times when curfews are required and when there will be mass economic dislocation and social turmoil because of restrictions.
Even in authoritarian states leaders have to respond carefully to public concern and fear, especially when there is mass panic and anxiety about an unfolding disease of which little is known.
Chinese President Xi Jinping realised he had to wage health and communications battles as COVID-19 deaths and illness mounted amid widespread outrage directed at him and the Government of the People’s Republic of China.
In The Bahamas, Prime Minister Minnis seemed prepared for this crisis. Because of his medical training and years of experience he appeared to instinctually understand the emerging threat.
His tenure as Minister of Health, during which he dealt with other viral threats, also appeared to make him more acutely sensitive as COVID-19 began to hit other countries.
But his greatest preparation for the current crisis may have been Hurricane Dorian, during which he learned through a baptism of fire and one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history, leadership lessons only understood and internalised by experience.
One of those lessons is to carefully check and verify what one is told by officials. Check the facts on the ground as President Lincoln often did during the U.S. Civil War, often going to the frontlines of battles.
He reviewed the state of battles, casualty and fatality numbers, the state of munitions, the needs of soldiers and the quality of his generals and officers.
Officials sometimes misstate supposed facts out of ignorance or to cover up their ineptitude and mistakes, or to make themselves look better. It was critical for the Prime Minister to visit the areas ravaged by Hurricane Dorian to provide comfort and assess the situation on the ground for himself.
It is also critical to assemble the best team possible. President Lincoln famously went through several generals until he settled on the hard-charging, often gruff and equally hard-drinking Ulysses S. Grant, who proved pivotal in helping the Union to win the U.S. Civil War.
As the COVID-19 crisis began to hit home, Dr. Minnis reached out to a former colleague to help coordinate his administration’s response. He found one of his generals in the no-nonsense retired Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis, a former Chief Medical Officer of the country. Her experience and biography eminently qualify her for the moment.
She attained her medical degree from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, one of the leading educational institutions.
Her Wikipedia page notes:
“In 2010, Dahl-Regis was appointed to chair an international expert committee responsible for verifying the elimination of measles, rubella and congenital rubella syndrome in the Americas. In 2016, the committee declared the Americas free of endemic measles, following a 22-year vaccination drive. “In 2018, Dahl-Regis was presented with the PAHO Public Health Hero of the Americas award. At the ceremony, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis commended Dahl-Regis on her efforts to eliminate vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Her CV notes: “Dr. Dahl-Regis is known for her leadership role in the Pan American Health Organization at its regional offices and at headquarters, and for her work with the World Health Organization in Geneva.
“… She has also served as a consultant at UNICEF, and as member and Chair of the Independent Review Committee of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in Geneva Switzerland 2000 through 2011.”
Leadership is about understanding the moment and how to respond. In a bizarre redux of his politically inept wading through Pinewood Gardens in boots with a PLP flag on his truck at the time of Hurricane Dorian, Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis has proved dramatically out of tune and out of step during the COVID-19 crisis.
First, he allowed for the creation of a PLP-branded committee that seemed more like a public relations exercise. And at the time when deaths were mounting around the world and the crisis was threatening the health and economic well-being of The Bahamas, he claimed the Minnis Administration was overreaching.
Mr. Davis looked foolish as he appeared to try to take political advantage of a dire threat to the lives of Bahamians and to our economy. Within days he had to reverse himself and agree to stricter measures. Even many PLPs are stunned by his actions and poor judgement.
Mr. Davis has reduced his stature even as the Prime Minister has gained in stature because of his steady leadership.
Mr. Davis spectacularly misread the moment. He continues to allow himself to be misled by staggeringly poor, wild-eyed advice from certain quarters. The Leader of the Opposition has shown a pattern of poor judgement, pettiness and miscalculation.
As Mrs. Kearns Goodwin has noted on numerous occasions, leadership and crises reveal character. Some world leaders have demonstrated tremendous character, while others have faltered and revealed their unsuitability for leadership and an inability to grow.