COVID-19 Spectrum of Leadership Decisions; Not “Correct” or “Incorrect” Answers

By Philip Fuehrer

Politics, like life, is complicated, as is leadership. As much as partisans on both sides of the liberal/conservative aisle would like to convince us otherwise there is rarely a directly “correct” or “wrong” answer or decision. Instead, there is more often a spectrum of decisions, each with justifications for making them. One may disagree with a decision but if it falls within a standard spectrum there will be legitimate or defensible reasons for making that decision. With the COVID-19 epidemic we are experiencing, in real time, a case study in the spectrum of leadership decision-making.

Here in the upper Midwest we have seen a variety of decisions that can illustrate a spectrum of decision-making. Forty-three states now have “stay-at-home” orders which both assuage the health concerns of one segment of the population while also trampling on constitutional rights according to another segment. Seven states, including Iowa, are outliers and have not issued “stay-at-home” orders. Are they supporting our right to assemble or are they risking public health?

In Minnesota, Governor Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency on March 13. Was that too early? We had not yet had a COVID-19 death in the state and had fewer than 20 confirmed cases. Was it too late? The first emergency declaration in the country had occurred on March 2 in Washington state. By the 13th of March about 30 states had already pulled the trigger on declaring emergencies. Why were we so far behind the ball?

In the former example, the situation gets even more muddled. Most states without official stay-at-home orders have already closed non-essential businesses and/or a variety of other restrictions, such as limiting the size of public gatherings. Conversely, states that have implemented stay-at-home orders have not declared overly restrictive curfews or shuttered every business; opting instead to allow exemptions like going to the grocery store or walking your dog outside. To the media though, it’s a clear binary decision; you have declared an order or not.

These real-world examples show the complexity of life, politics and leadership. It is a nuance that is most often lost, or willfully ignored, in today’s partisan landscape, and by much of today’s “infotainment news”. Truth, or reasoned, rational discourse be damned as long as I can score political points or ratings.

The lost, or ignored, aspect here is that leadership is most often undertaken within the realm of the unknown. If, in January, we knew with certainty that COVID-19 would settle in at a “normal” flu season (40-75K deaths), it’s likely that it would have been another H1N1 situation (hyped by the media with little widespread real-world reaction). However, we were not able to know that. You need data. And, even with produced new data you have to account for mitigation measures that you may have taken in the intervening time period. At the end of the day, in this situation of COVID-19, our leadership has to make decisions with both incomplete and imperfect information.

The thing to really keep in mind is that we are not talking about trying out that new Chinese restaurant next week. If the food is terrible, you are only out a few dollars and can provide that 1-star review on Yelp to help others. Now, put yourself in a leadership situation with COVID-19. Estimates were for the U.S. (not worldwide) seeing more than 2 million deaths by year-end if you don’t do something with 30,000+ occurring in Minnesota. That’s significantly above our usual rate. With that as your starting point you should be able to bring the idea of a spectrum of decision-making into better focus.

The beauty of a spectrum of leadership decisions, particularly in a universal case like COVID-19, is that we will know much more at the end of this all. We will have a better chance, though still incomplete and debatable, on what effect certain actions and lack of actions had, what could have been done differently, when it should have occurred, etc.

In the meantime, do things the Independence-Alliance Party way; critique decisions (not simply blast them) if you think they are off while offering solutions or alternatives that you believe are better. Most of all, have some respect for people, our leaders, and realize that decisions are not made with full information. Remember that there is an entirely valid spectrum of decisions that can be made on a topic, many of which are not your preferred course of action. Give Governor Walz some slack when he says that the devastation to human life in the preliminary models from not taking any action was simply so great that he chose to “err on protecting the side of Minnesotans”. It was his decision to make. It fits entirely within a reasonable spectrum of decision-making.