Transformational Courage – Part 4


Lessons on Leadership

Most of the time, we can lull ourselves into believing past events were inevitable and our future will be a simple extension of today. But this is not such a time.

After writing Transformational Courage #3, I dug deeper into investigating leadership within the context of transformational courage. Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, inspired me to scour the WWI historical landscape, searching for clues about what makes leaders great.

The following books proved particularly helpful:

  1. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves’ 1929 autobiography of his years as an English lieutenant in the trenches of France
  2. The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
  3. Roosevelt: Traitor to His Class by HW Brands (2008 on FDR)
  4. Franklin and Winston: An Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham
  5. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s 1940 dystopian novel
  6. Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World by William Lee Miller
  7. The Hidden-Hand Presidency:  Eisenhower as Leader by Fred I. Greenstein (1982)

The research on WWI left many questions, as truly superior leadership at the top seemed to be absent. Therefore, I expanded my research to encompass an overview of WWI in the context of more recent history. Given this expanded horizon, superior leaders appear to possess four fundamental characteristics:

  1. A moral compass governed by an empathic resonance for others,
  2. An ability to seek out and skillfully integrate both hard and soft data,
  3. A practical sense of timing, focus, and momentum, as well as
  4. A persistence that utilizes multiple channels to manage opposition.

After assessing leadership participation in the historical trends, I propose a methodology of assessing a leader’s future potential.

I then apply lessons learned to the immediate challenge of the COVID-19 epidemic.


Overview – From 1913 to 1939

In 1913 a better future seemed inevitable. Europeans and Americans were giddy with optimism1 as new technology was quickly increasing lifestyle expectations. The technology of new-fangled electric appliances promised to overcome life’s drudgery while advances in autos and airplanes suggested fortunes to be made with increased travel and trade.

But in the summer of 1914, the onset of WWI drained Europe’s euphoria.

The causes of the war are frequently listed as:

  1. The major European countries’ wish to expand their borders and protect or add to their colonial empires,
  2. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian, and
  3. The numerous competing defense alliances that obligated European countries to join in once Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In 1914 these factors made war seemingly inevitable.

However, after 20 million deaths and an Armistice in 1918 that did little to avert WWII, the minimalistic diplomatic efforts to avert war (by the cousins Russian Tsar Nicholas II and German Kaiser Wilhelm II), the historical question for the period is, “What can we learn from this failure?”


The Great War in Context

  • 1900-1920 – Positive in the US with trust busting and the expansion of the National Parks – Negative in Europe with WWI and the rise of the Communist Regime in Russia
  • 1920-1940 – Neutral in the US with our boom and bust (the Roaring 20’s followed by the Great Depression) – Highly negative in Europe with Hitler’s regime, WWII, and the Holocaust
  • 1940-1960 – Positive in both the US and Europe with steady Allied leadership (Churchill, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower) to win WWII, rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan, set the Cold War conditions that avoided nuclear war, and the design of domestic policies that led to better health and prosperity
  • 1960-1980 – Neutral in the US with continuing prosperity, expanding civil rights efforts, and Nixon opening dialog with China, but a questionable (at best) Viet Nam strategy, Neutral in Europe with the negative Soviet regime stranglehold on human rights balanced by increasing stability in Western Europe
  • 1980-2000 – Neutral in the US with steady policies that outlasted the Soviets in the Cold War and the legal remedies against tobacco, but with the problems of increasing wealth inequality, massive healthcare cost escalations, and lack of any sustained response to the increasing scientific evidence of severe environmental degradation
  • 2000-2020 – Negative in the US with on-going squandering of the “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War, constant war in the Mideast, anti-environmentalism despite massive evidence, increasing public debt despite inadequate investment in infrastructure, crushing wealth inequality, and recalcitrant politics that refuse to cross the aisle
  • 1900 to 2020 Summary:
    • General upward trend in the US from 1900 to the mid-sixties
    • General downward trend in the US since the escalation of the Viet Nam War
    • Totalitarian violence on both the far right and the far left with Nazi’s six million Holocaust victims and Communist regime pogroms killing an estimated 100 million
    • China’s rise as a major economic phenomenon with a 33-fold growth in per capita GDP since 1980
    • In the US, major economic leveraging of future downside economic risk with major tax cuts and increasing deficits despite the longest economic expansion in US history

After finishing the above grading, I reviewed a summary ranking of the performance of US presidents. The only three-in-a-row presidents who earned a top quartile ranking were FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower. This threesome’s most obvious leadership similarity might be their ability to continue learning on the job while president.

The overall quality of Presidential decision-making since 1900 appears to have peaked from 1940 to 1965.

Such a high-level summary would be incomplete without noting that the effectiveness in integrating the black population into our society also apparently peaked in the sixties. I largely owe Michelle Alexander and her book The New Jim Crow for this perspective.

Assessing Leadership

I conclude:

1. Leaders should be judged by the results they achieve – (20% of the weighting)

This aspect of leadership may be the most obvious. However, the lag between what’s best in the long run versus short-term is highlighted by major missteps when too much emphasis is placed on quarterly corporate earnings.

An HBR article from over 25 years ago asserted that both the size of an organization and the decision-maker’s position define the optimal length of a manager’s timeline focus. The bigger the company and the higher up the ladder, the more long-term one’s focus should be.

As a practical example, in ranking a US president’s effectiveness, the major benchmarks (large scale social and economic trends as well as the relative standing of the US in the world) require consideration, not only during their tenure in office, but far into subsequent decades.

2. Leaders should be judged by their ability to lead an adequate number of constituents to advance the greater good. (20%)

FDR is given credit for a judicious balancing act from 1939 to 1941. He supported Britain in its war efforts while waiting for an American consensus to support the Allies. Although I’m an FDR fan, the lack of US military readiness at the time of Pearl Harbor was either a result of suboptimal leadership on FDR’s part or a savvy assessment of just how little he could push past American support of Hitler (Bradley W. Hart’s book Hitler’s American Friends). Woodrow Wilson faced a similar challenge in WWI.

 3. Leaders should be judged by how they make decisions. (60%)

This is the primary factor in assessing a leader. Organizations make better decisions when they follow well-designed processes. The “great leader makes the decisions” approach appeals to the natural tendency of many of us to follow an alpha male personality, but it is clearly a suboptimal strategy.

One could refine the dictum on Truman’s desk – “The buck stops here” – by adding after 99 cents has been spent on a process of gathering information, assessing competing solutions, and determining what you don’t know about the decision under consideration.

This article in Forbes stresses the importance of integrating processes into one’s personal decision making.  The importance in organizations is magnified by the complexity of perspectives, politics, and the need for consensus.

Of the leaders highlighted in the books listed above, Churchill was the least process oriented and Eisenhower the most. Still, Churchill certainly demonstrated the situational flexibility to adapt in complex situations:

  • His ability to sustain England’s morale before the US entered the war required both strategic clarity and enormous communication skills.
  • However, by mid-1943, Churchill needed to take a subordinate role to the US in both political and military strategy. While extremely difficult for Churchill, his integral support was still necessary to win the war.
  • In hindsight, Churchill had a more accurate assessment of Stalin’s European expansion plans in Europe than Roosevelt. The decision (primarily Eisenhower’s) that a US led capture of Berlin was not a military necessity, so “let the Soviets do it alone”, was an early and costly Cold War mistake.

Churchill’s strategic clarity combined with a lack of processes put him too far out front of his constituents three key times in his career:

  • His Dardanelle strategy in WWI was eventually adopted, but much later than ideal and with inadequate resources. The Dardanelle failure was politically branded as Churchill’s strategic misadventure rather than a good strategy that was poorly executed by those outside Churchill’s command.
  • His attempt to prepare both militarily and diplomatically to confront Hitler in the mid-1930’s was prescient but met with nearly universal derision.
  • Churchill’s attempts to protect Europe from Stalin’s expansionism at the end of WWII took a back seat to America’s war fatigue and wish to focus on Japan.

Churchill’s extraordinary leadership was balanced with his considerable organizational skills. However, these examples show that he paid heavily when he became too far in front of necessary organizational processes.

COVID-19 Epidemic and Superior Leadership

Once again, here are the four characteristics possessed by superior leaders:

  1. A moral compass governed by an empathic resonance for others,
  2. An ability to seek out and skillfully integrate both hard and soft data,
  3. A practical sense of timing, focus, and momentum, and
  4. A persistence that utilizes multiple channels to manage opposition.

In the context of good leadership, here are five challenges the US faces in managing the virus:

  1. Ventilators: A 3/23 New England Journal of Medicine article estimated that each ventilator in the country will need to serve between 1.4 and 31 COVID-19 patients. Given the inherent likelihood that the geographical distribution of ventilators and the patients who need them will not match, the need to slow virus progression via social distancing and focused quarantines, is clear.
  2. Supplies: We may be running out of the supplies that help keep our front-line medical personnel safe and uninfected patients safe.
  3. The economy is already showing a severe strain. Before COVID-19, less than 50% of Americans had an emergency savings fund, 42% didn’t have $400 for an emergency, and 12% couldn’t pay a $400 bill, even if they sold everything they own.
  4. The lack of goodwill across the aisle makes collaboration costly because trust has been broken and the blame game is too successful a strategy.
  5. Trump’s administration has employed a consistent “gut the processes – full speed ahead” approach. Specifically, the processes designed to prepare and deal with epidemics were dismantled. History will ask, “Where was Republican leadership?”

Concerning #1 and #2, before this crisis the administration reduced funding for pandemic preparation. A quote from an Eisenhower letter to a diplomat fits: “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” As a physician and administrator with experience triaging scarce medical supplies (ICU beds and intravenous fluids), the quote fits – planning ahead of a crisis is invaluable.

Healthy professionals to care for ventilators will also likely be stressed beyond capacity. Send your blessings and thanks to those you know on the front lines.

A more comprehensive report of the administrations’ dismantling of the epidemic preparation is outlined here by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

I finish by focusing on challenge #3 – the economy.

The COVID-19 Stress to the Economy

Because of current administration policy, the risk to the economy is higher than would have been necessary if standard economic protocol been followed.

In 2019 the US government up the debt a trillion dollars despite enjoying a 126 months-long economic expansion (the longest in US history). As a percentage of GDP, this level of borrowing has only been exceeded in times of severe crisis: WWII, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. This level of borrowing in a boom is as unprecedented as it is risky.

While not as simple as “saving for a rainy day”, reducing deficits during economic expansions reflects the same concept. Whether or not COVID is given credit for the impending 2020 recession, there will be and would have been a downturn at some time in the future. Borrowing in good times is destabilizing.

The Republican’s railed against the $800 billion Obama’s stimulus package to turn around the Great Recession, calling it “reckless” borrowing that would put our kids under a debt they could never pay back.  So too the $2000 billion stimulus package for COVID-19 may be risky but necessary. Outside the partisan wrangling, the 1917 tax cuts make the current stimulus a much higher risk of becoming a disastrous destabilizing force than it would have been.

The other concerning economic issue is the incredible wealth disparity in the US. In 2016, the top 5% of American’s held 248 times as much wealth as the median citizen. The trend in this disparity has recently accelerated with the recent disproportionately favorable tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. The early assessments on the COVID stimulus suggest the rich will, once again, get richer.

Reflect on this “greatest ever wealth disparity” and our poor emergency preparation in light of the first leadership characteristic – to be governed by “an empathic resonance for others.”

Some feel that empathy may be too soft a quality given the difficult decisions that a leader must make. However, my conclusion of empathy’s central importance in decision making came after examining the challenging decisions of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower.

These men were anything but soft.

I wish good health to all.

Tomorrow’s Fix Today,

1Charles Emerson, 1913 – In Search of the World Before the Great War


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Edition 1 – Solving a Well-Entrenched Problem
Edition 2 – A Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Edition 3 – Best marketing tagline of all time?
Edition 4 – Post-Truth Killed a President
Edition 5 – What’s an employer to do?
Edition 6 – Profiting From the Opioid Epidemic
Edition 7 – The Keys to Unlocking Better Decisions
Edition 8 – When Difficult Things Need to be Done Well
Edition 9 – Fixing Healthcare
Edition 10 – Beware of a Singing Cow
Edition 11 – Wise Reflections
Edition 12 – Warning: Reader Discretion Advised
Edition 13 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 1)
Edition 14 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 2)
Edition 15 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 3)
Edition 16 – Embracing Reality to Improve Healthcare
Edition 17 – Everything I Needed To Know…
Edition 18 – The Eighth Circle of Hell
Edition 19 – So… What’s Our Solution?
Edition 20 – Protecting Integrity as a Core Strategy
Edition 21 – An Unadorned Legacy
Edition 22 – Time to Grow Up
Edition 23 – Against All Odds
Edition 24 – When Everyone Has Stopped Listening
Edition 25 – Focusing on What’s Important
Edition 26 – Don’t Give Up Your Shot
Edition 27 – Join the Goodhood
Edition 28 – Fixing Healthcare (Recycled)
Edition 29 – Taming the Healthcare Beast
Edition 30 – Leadership
Edition 31 – Better Health Requires Good Sense
Edition 32 – Little Decisions With Big Consequences
Edition 33 – Transformational Courage
Edition 34 – Transformational Courage – Part 2
Guest Post – Happy Thanksgiving! By Jeff Novick, RD
Edition 35 – Transformational Courage – Part 3