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History teaches 3 essential leadership lessons for our current crisis

These Harvard Business School coauthors of a forthcoming case study on the Cuban Missile Crisis argue that current U.S. leaders are neglecting three essential tactics that enabled the Kennedy administration to avoid global annihilation nearly 60 years ago.

History teaches 3 essential leadership lessons for our current crisis
[Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images]

The COVID-19 pandemic and current unrest may seem unprecedented, yet this country has previously faced times of grave peril that have tested our leaders, front-line workers, and ordinary citizens. History offers important insights for navigating the high seas and strong winds of this global storm. Almost 60 years ago, in the early part of a tumultuous decade, the country held its collective breath during an existential two-week showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis peaked in fall 1962, when the Soviet Union secretly installed offensive nuclear missiles on the island nation. In mid-October, President John F. Kennedy vowed to get the missiles out of Cuba, a decision that he and his advisers initially thought should be accomplished by military action. These men recognized that attacking Cuba would likely trigger a swift response from the Soviet Union, greatly increasing the potential for nuclear war. Indeed, on more than one occasion during the 13 most critical days of the crisis, the world came perilously close to the unthinkable: global annihilation.

Despite widespread fear of this possibility, the crisis ended without armed conflict. Military, technological, international, and diplomatic expertise all played a part in a peaceful resolution. But, in the final analysis, the determining factor was astute, courageous leadership.

The same holds true for the COVID-19 pandemic. Every resource we have to fight the virus—from the scientists racing to find a vaccine to government’s response to the massive economic downturn—depends on thoughtful, serious, and emotionally intelligent crisis leadership. And those in authority who lack or deviate from these aspects hinder our ability to navigate through this life-and-death turbulence.

Here are three insights on courageous leadership from the Cuban Missile Crisis that are relevant to COVID-19 and growing national unrest.

1. Leaders must be disciplined about what they say and do

During a crisis, even small things have magnified impact, heightening the possibility of misperception. People are anxious and uncertain; they are closely watching and listening to those in authority, taking in not only words but also actions. Kennedy understood this and was very careful about what, when, and how he communicated—with his advisers, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and the American and global audiences.

We need such diligence and discipline from our leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Compare New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership at his daily briefings and his consistent call to citizens’ responsibility to protect others by wearing masks, observing social distancing protocols, and honoring a staged, data-driven reopening, with that of our president, who refuses to wear a mask, endorses hydroxychloroquine, a treatment discredited by medical experts, and encourages often-violent protests against stay-at-home orders. That is, until a critical mass of the protesters have dark skin: When George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police triggered nationwide protests, the president responded with inflammatory tweets, encouraging harsh response from law enforcement, while refusing to calm the nation with a face-to-face address.

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2. Strong crisis leaders convene and empower experts

Ultimately, the leader has to make the final decisions, but his or her ability to convene and empower experts is key. After a great deal of discussion and intense debate in October 1962, Kennedy and his team of advisers adopted an innovative combination of several options: a naval quarantine of Cuba, public and private diplomacy, credible threat of military action, and, at the last moment, a back-channel deal with the Soviet Union to remove American missiles from Turkey. Part of what enabled Kennedy and his ad hoc brain trust to reach this novel solution was the latitude the president allowed for disagreement, reimagining, and then synthesizing what they knew and what they were learning.

The demand for expertise and varied experience is equally vital with COVID-19. In the U.S., we are fortunate to have skilled doctors, scientists, and others to understand the transmission, treatment, and larger course of this disease. These experts must be respected, convened regularly, and empowered to collaborate toward solutions. They cannot be micromanaged, contradicted, or threatened with dismissal by political leaders in charge.

3. Leadership requires adjusting the tempo of decision-making

Thoughtful crisis leaders recognize that even in the urgency of an intensifying crisis, they can adjust the pace of decision-making, thus creating space for reflection and—more often than not—for the most effective options to emerge. Aided by a coterie of close aides and, especially, his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, JFK was able to slow the cadence of U.S. response, minimizing a possible military escalation. For example, the naval quarantine of Soviet ships bound for Cuba combined gradual pressure on Khrushchev with a plausible way for him to back down without humiliation. Perhaps the quarantine’s most important contribution was the extra time it created for leaders in both countries to consider the catastrophe of nuclear war.

Today, many experts and serious leaders understand the importance of calibrating pace with action. Yes, we want swift development of a vaccine, but rigorous testing is also essential, and this requires time. Yes, economies must be reopened expeditiously, but they must be guided by extensive testing, contact tracing, and monitoring of transmission and hospitalization rates. To successfully confront the virus, including its economic fallout and the enormous human suffering, we must move both fast and slower.

Given the need to simultaneously act both fast and slower, it is critical that Congress and the White House provide additional fiscal assistance to individuals, small business, states, and local governments. Such relief buys time to weather the “go-slower” part, ensuring that vaccines and treatments are safe before they come to market, that economies come back on line responsibly, so that citizens do not have to choose between their livelihoods and their lives.

Courage and crisis have a symbiotic relationship. Crises make serious leaders better, and courageous, emotionally intelligent leaders become indispensable in crises. In such moments, modeling appropriate behavior, convening and empowering experts, and influencing the pace of decision-making were the three core factors of leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis—another critical turning point for the world. It behooves each of us to consider these essential ingredients of great leaders as we both assess people in power and do what we can to help the world conquer COVID-19.

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Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School, and Eugene B. Kogan, a research associate at the school, are writing a Harvard Business School case about the leadership lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nancy’s latest book is Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.

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