In a Global Pandemic, Leaders Wear Masks

Like, I’m sure, many of us, I’ve been thinking a great deal about leadership these days.  Good leadership has many attributes – compassion for team members, respect for personal time, delegation, open-mindedness, etc. – but I’m thinking about one aspect specifically – modeling the behavior desired from others.

I’ve long held that there is only one rule necessary to live by, The Golden Rule (and for all you wits out there, no, not “he who has the gold makes the rules”):

We all admire the small business owners, CEOs and Boards of Directors and who have taken significant or full pay cuts and other measures to help pay their employees during the pandemic.  Of course, in many cases it is largely symbolic, but it is still important that they are “walking the talk.”

Nevertheless, in these challenging times, there is another significant issue at stake.  Lives lost due to leadership failure or even gross negligence.

It’s obvious where I’m headed, Donald Trump and his Trumpist cronies.  Full disclosure, I’ve spent countless hours during the past year working to help oust him from office so I cannot claim a lack of bias, but the point I want to make is valid.

One of the Trumpy talking points was best articulated by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on July 17th:

“I think what we did here in South Dakota is really remarkable because we gave people their freedom,” she said. “We let the businesses stay open, we let people go to work, we told them to be smart, and we also asked them to be personally responsible. And, we’re seeing benefits of that each and every day in South Dakota.”

First, shortly thereafter it became one of the worst hot spots in the U.S. and to this day she continues to be in denial.

Second, conflating a lack of freedom with social responsibility (seat belts, anyone? Or, “No shirt. No shoes. No service.”?), is not only stupid, but dangerous.

Third, her statement implies that Democrats want to take away American’s freedom and don’t trust them to be responsible.

That, frankly, is nonsense (I had another word in mind, but restrained myself).

People follow their leaders.  Democrats (and responsible Republicans), by and large, wore masks, socially distanced and washed their hands more, not because of mandates, stay-at-home orders and restrictions, but because they saw that behavior in their leaders.  Look at what happened when California’s Governor Gavin Newsom attended a dinner party or Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took a flight to visit family for Thanksgiving.  Backlash was swift and unforgiving, by Democrats as well as Republicans.

It is incontrovertible that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the U.S. harder that it should have due to Trumpist leaders eschewing science, denigrating mask wearing and generally downplaying the truth.  In other words, they modeled poor behavior, and those they led followed. 

There is evidence that had a unified national leadership, at all levels – President, Senators, Congresspeople, Governors, and Mayors on down – simply worn masks and followed the science the U.S. would be nowhere near its current 270,000 death tally (as of writing this).  While many countries instituted mandates, others did not and still saw dramatically better death rates because the populace was consistently encouraged to wear masks and did.  It is understood that there are many other factors, including partial lockdowns and other restrictions, that impacted the death rate in countries that did not mandate wearing a mask, and that, culturally, the U.S. would not likely have seen quite the mask adoption levels of other countries.  Even so, had 20%, 30%, 40% more people regularly worn masks, thousands of lives would have been saved.

Not to mention, that had the pandemic been more under control with fewer cases and deaths, the toll on the economy would have been far less.  The two are inextricably linked.

Bottom line:  It’s not about trust or freedom.  It’s about leadership.  People will follow, and model their behavior, on both good and bad leaders.  With something so important as a global pandemic, people can’t afford bad leaders.

Anecdotally, I jog nearly everyday in a nearby park.  Prior to the election, I would estimate roughly 50% of the people there wore masks, though most did their best to socially distance.  Since the election (and the current virus infection surge) and Trump’s fading from public view, I’d estimate that at least 75-80% of people are wearing masks.   Scientific evidence?  Of course not.  However, hopefully, with a new leader taking the spotlight and modeling socially responsible behavior, signs of improvement are already beginning.

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