Influencing Powerful People in Times of Crisis
Times of crisis are when leaders show what they are made of. Winston Churchill, a long-time political outsider, led England through the dark times of WWII promising nothing but blood, sweat and tears; Rudi Giuliani, first perceived as rigid and self-righteous, won praise for uniting New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, criticized equally on the left and on the right, was the one who reassured Americans during the anxieties of the Great Depression.
None of these leaders could have made their historic contributions on their own. As Governor Howard Dean pointed out when commenting on the first edition of Influencing Powerful People, “for every powerful person who has influenced history, there are three of four people behind the scenes without whom history would never have changed.” There is a lot of hard work in times of crisis done by those who advise, guide and influence the powerful people in charge - or at least attempt to do so.
At the time of this writing, we don’t know how, when or whether COVID-19 will end. We don’t know who will have made the right decisions or what they were. What we do know is that the COVID-19 pandemic rivals the above crises in severity, complexity and lasting consequence.
What makes the COVID-19 crisis so vexing is that the twin goals of protecting public health and keeping the economy from collapsing present themselves as fundamentally at odds - with few strategies aimed at both. And thus world leaders are receiving conflicting advice. There are those (typically doctors) who are imploring governments and the public to make sure people stay home and there are competing voices pointing to the disastrous consequences of prolonged economic inactivity. And yet decisions must be made.
This time of crisis has brought some unlikely influencers to the fore. Not surprisingly, many have highly distinguished medical backgrounds, others are equally distinguished economists and yet others are experienced in crisis management. So, what can we learn from them at a time that influencing powerful people may have been more important than ever before? What does it take to be an influencer of powerful people in times of crisis?
The public health officials who have taken center stage as advisors and crisis managers are experts with impeccable track records. In a day and age where the internet enables everyone to opine on and question anything the crisis has brought us back to basics: Credibility requires real competence. And so we have been introduced to a global group of experts whose resumes and track record are nothing short of impressive. The Guardian’s compilation of the senior medical experts at the front line of the fight against COVID-19 certainly makes for an interesting and instructive read. The list include people like France’s Jerome Salomon, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases; Germany’s Christian Drosten, one of the scientists who discovered the infectious agents responsible for the SARS epidemic; Canada’s Theresa Tam, a key person in the fight against SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009; and, of course, America’s Anthony Fauci, whose long and distinguished career had him report to no less than six US Presidents.
But as the crisis wears on, and the economic fall-out is becoming more worrisome and tangible, economic experts are making sure their voices are heard and heeded by those who make decisions. Angel Gurria, OECD secretary general and a distinguished economist, told the BBC that it was “wishful thinking” to believe battered economies would bounce back quickly. As it turns out, Mr. Gurria’s wife is a doctor and hospital administrator, so it would be hard to accuse him of not having the big picture.
Crisis management is hard work. None of the health or economic experts currently in the spotlight are ivory tower advisors. They are advisors and doers. As the Global News website explains, Theresa Tam not only provides advice to Canada’s federal minister of health, she is also responsible for heading the Public Health Agency of Canada and coordinates the public health agencies across the country; last but not least she provides a unifying voice in a provincially managed health system. This is a massive responsibility prompting the magazine MacLean’s to ask: "Does Theresa Tam ever get a day off?" Harrowing work hours, packed schedules, overflowing inboxes and all with little time for sleep are reported across the board about many of the chief medical advisors. Crisis management is not for the faint of heart - it requires managing one’s energy carefully and it can easily take a toll.
- Ability to communicate
The COVID-19 medical experts are not just there to advise their political masters but increasingly have taken over the responsibility to address and update the public in their respective nations. In that context an ability to communicate becomes an invaluable asset. The US news website the Hill ascribes to Dr. Fauci a “one-of-a-kind” ability to convey complex medical information in a way that the general public understands;” the German Weekly die Zeit declares that Christian Drosten has become Germany’s “de facto explainer” for the coronavirus outbreak; and the French financial newspaper Les Echos compares Jerome Salomon’s style to that of an anti-terror prosecutor announcing the daily bad news positioning him as France’s bulwark against the epidemic; Theresa Tam’s voice meanwhile is said to be “steely and distinctive,” reminding the Canadian public with stern instruction that everyone has their role to play.
All of these officials, and all in their own way, embody the way to communicate in a crisis: clear, straightforward, and “authentic” without pretense. As a result, powerful people and the public at large have been drawn to listen and listen carefully.
- Calmness - yet with the ability to show emotion
While, not unexpectedly, the demeanor of public health experts is one of calmness this does not mean they are without emotion. While being compared to a prosecutor and as never losing his sang-froid, France’s Dr. Salomon is still described as caring. The German public saw a much talked about display of emotion from Lothar Wieler, the head of the country’s public health institute (RKI); while less charismatic than the previously mentioned Christian Drosten, he was witnessed on the evening news to be visibly distraught when having to report that large portions of the population were not following the urgent appeals to stay home. This display of emotion provided a marked counterpoint to his standard demeanor of a scientist “who prefers the laboratory to the medical office.” Two days later the federal government announced stricter measures; a strong reminder that “contrast in demeanor” and appropriate expression of emotion can be impactful.
- Comfortable with bad and uncomfortable news
Presenting grim news has been at the core of many of the officials we have met. The task has earned Dr. Salomon the nom de guerre of France’s Mr. Coronavirus, and Lothar Wieler has been dubbed “the national bearer of bad news” (vs. Dr. Drosten as explainer in chief). Prof. Wieler doesn’t seem to mind.
In the meantime, the person receiving the most attention for managing the difficult task of conveying bad news to powerful people has been America’s Dr. Fauci: He repeatedly had to contextualize, clarify, and even correct statements made by the President of the United States, Donald Trump. The Hill has admired him for a (thus far) successful tightrope walk: Devoid of unnecessary confrontation and far from projecting as a know-it-all, Dr. Fauci has managed to maintain a factual, no-nonsense approach. While some may have wished for the Doctor to give more lectures to his President he has not taken the bait and rather seems to have stuck to the cardinal rules of working with powerful people: Do what is effective, remain true to your values, and remember that he (or she) who gets fired gets nothing done.
- Willing to admit “I was wrong” and/or “I don’t know.”
While Bill Gates famously predicted the Corona outbreak (or at least a similar pandemic) back in 2015 the ferocity of the COVID onslaught caught most experts unawares. During the early days of the crisis here in Canada I listened to a podcast by David Fisman, epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. Dr. Fisman started out by stating that the assessment he had so confidently provided the prior week had proven to be erroneous. Similar admissions have been made by other experts. Karl Lauterbach, Member of Parliament (Germany), epidemiologist and health management expert, freely admitted that the quickly changing situation caused him to misjudge the severity of the crisis - he declared that he did not feel that this admission was in any way unbecoming of his status or position. And even his “explainer-in-chief” compatriot Christian Drosten felt free to answer one of the questions in a wide ranging interview with the weekly Die Zeit with an unequivocal “I don’t know.”
- Nothing to prove
One of the key insights and “final rule” from the 1st edition of Influencing Powerful People was that “powerful people need people who don’t need them.” Reflecting on the key influencers in the COVID-19 pandemic it appears that this rule is more valid than ever. None of the people we have met seem to be motivated by gaining a higher profile, keeping or advancing their careers, or anything but a true desire to help manage the crisis. This attitude, and resulting credibility, is probably best personified by Anthony Fauci: At age 79, many of his contemporaries are living in a well-earned retirement. In addition, the Hill reports that Dr. Fauci had turned down the role of National Institutes of Health (NIH) director multiple times. According to their source, this was because it is a political appointment and he wanted to serve in the agency for the long term. So it is worth repeating: Powerful people need people who don’t need them.
In our system of liberal democracy elected politicians have the final say on how to manage the crisis. Being a politician and being a subject matter expert on a topic such as public health and epidemiology are typically different things; they require different skill sets and both skills sets are needed. Karl Lauterbach - epidemiologist and politician - is an exception.
Therefore, influencing powerful people during times of crisis is as demanding as it is important. Powerful people need good advice and they need good advisors. So does the public. Ultimately, we need people whom we can trust; in that regard, two things are decisive: Competence and character. We, as the public, need people who have both; and equally we need powerful people who are looking for both as well.
This blog is designed to inform readers and stimulate discussion. It is shared with the understanding that it does not constitute legal, accounting, securities or other professional advice to be relied upon. If such advice is needed, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.