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What Effective Public Leaders Do to Get Ahead of a Crisis

In confronting a deadly challenge like the coronavirus pandemic, they create a unified command and a compelling scoreboard, while maintaining a cadence of action, accountability and communication.

Good examples of effective communications are emerging in this pandemic, few better than New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily briefings that are direct, useful and reassuring. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across America, governors, mayors and county executives are facing — or soon will face — the biggest challenge of their public service careers. They ran for office to make their communities better places to live and work. Now they're full-time into saving lives.

But whether the emergency is a deadly disease outbreak or a terror attack, a hurricane, a tornado or any other large-scale crisis, the principles of management and leadership for dealing decisively and effectively with it are the same. And so, too, are the questions every leader must be able to answer, both for the governments they lead and for the people they are trusted to protect: What has happened? What do you know about it? What are you doing about it? And what should we — my family, my staff, my organization, my department — be doing about it?

Tactics and strategies must also adapt and change as the crisis unfolds. The management and leadership challenge is to get ahead of the problem instead of chasing after it. This won't happen by itself. It is a matter of synchronizing a host of actions based on timely, accurate information shared by all.

The key is to operationalize everything that is known about the unfolding crisis into ever-more-rapid and effective actions. The trick is to get inside the turning radius of the fast-developing emergency. This is how effective leaders do that:

They establish a unified command. Overcoming big emergencies rarely involves just one agency; an effective response requires a unified command. This is about more than merely bringing together department heads, although that's a good start. A unified command is about coordinating the whole of government into an array of the most effective actions, tactics and strategies to attack the emergency faster than it can attack us. One department leads, but every other relevant department is required to sequence, synchronize and integrate its efforts in support of the lead agency. In a big fire, the fire department leads; in a pandemic, the health department leads. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it recently, "I don't operate on opinion and hope. I operate on facts and data and science." A unified command operationalizes the facts, the data and the science.

They create a compelling scoreboard. The best tool for forging separate operating silos into a single operating picture is a map, which helps officials tell the story to the public, with better information at each new press briefing, including where things are happening, what is known, and what actions are being taken where. And the best tools for turning data into shared understanding are bar graphs and trend lines. With the pandemic, for example, the most important step the public can take is to socially distance in order to bend the curve. How will we know when our actions are working? When the ascending trend lines for positive cases, hospital admissions and deaths start to level and then decline.

They maintain a relentless battle rhythm. Only the leader can convene and focus the whole. It is not enough for you to become the best "intragovernmental deputy" your health department director ever had, merely coordinating among agencies. Effective leaders create a cadence of action and accountability in a crisis — short meetings, based on the latest facts, science and data, to constantly ask: Is what we are doing working or not? Honest and open communication is the key, not only within your government and with non-governmental partners but also with the public at large.

One cautionary note: Effective leaders do not allow a crisis to drive them into a bunker. Establish a schedule for frequent meetings of the unified command and of the broader collaborative circle of your jurisdiction responsible for the continuity of all other government functions. And just as important, establish a schedule for briefing the public. Assign a senior staffer to serve as the timekeeper and enforcer — one person who never loses track of the public's consistent need to know and understand.

It is easy to let public communications slip when you are busy taking actions that save lives. But remember, the absence of truthful communication is miscommunication, and miscommunication can kill. Several good examples of effective communications are emerging in this pandemic, few better than Gov. Cuomo's daily briefings that are direct, useful and reassuring.

So, maintain a relentless battle rhythm of accountable actions, effective tactics and clear communications. It is amazing how quickly we can come together in an emergency. Given the long, tough days ahead of us, let's also hope this crisis might quicken the arrival of a new way of governing for the better days that will follow — with facts and data and science shared by all, for all.

Martin O'Malley is the author of the new book Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age, from which parts of this column were adapted.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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