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We need a COVID-19 D-Day—and the leadership to execute it

Two Harvard Business School professors declare that the U.S. is losing the battle against the pandemic but describe how effective leadership could still win the war.

We need a COVID-19 D-Day—and the leadership to execute it
American flags dot the National Mall in Washington, D.C., September 22 in memory of the more than 200,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. [Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images]

On June 6, 1944, the United States and its allies launched the largest amphibious assault in world history. This was the result of an enormous logistical enterprise, involving millions of people and years of planning, organization, equipment production, recruiting and training, and mobilizing resources both for the invasion and its immediate follow-up. Much of the effort was voluntary. Massive as D-Day was, it was coordinated and organized, and unified within and across the participating allied countries. It was also the decisive factor in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

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How did this happen?

The proximate answers are many, varied, and complex. But one simple answer underlies them all: morally principled, politically astute, and administratively adept leadership.

Each of the three elements is crucially important. If leadership is not morally principled, it will take us to the wrong place. If it is not politically astute, it won’t get us to move. And if it is not administratively adept, it won’t move us anywhere that matters.

“Real leadership” is defined by actions people take that move us from the path we are on to a better one. And real leaders, who carry on the tough, disciplined work of conducting us to a superior road, are, in the words of writer David Foster Wallace, “Individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own weaknesses, laziness, selfishness, and fears, and get us to do harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” This is the kind of leadership that enabled—and then executed—the massive, all-out effort that was the D-Day invasion.

Today we are again faced with a great war, raging not only internationally but also on our own shores. In 2020, our enemy is not a coalition of national powers, but rather a ruthlessly efficient virus with global reach. It is a foe that is swiftly infecting millions of people across the planet, causing severe illness (in many cases, with debilitating long-term medical damage) and widespread death.

Although it’s a disease and not Hitler’s army, the growing COVID-19 pandemic today has many of the same features that characterized America’s situation at the outbreak of World War II: The threat level is not universally acknowledged; the stakes are life, death, and our people’s most basic well-being; and facing the enemy and ultimately defeating it demands real leadership to define the threat, build a strategy, and mobilize us to confront it.

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At more than 200,000 deaths, the virus has killed more Americans than World War I.”

Since February 1, the U.S. has had more than 6 million cases—the largest number of any country in the world. At more than 200,000 deaths, the virus has killed more Americans than perished in World War I and more deaths than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the American Revolution combined. Our performance in fighting the disease in relation to that of other developed countries is miserable. The U.S., the world’s richest country, with just over 4% of the world’s population, has had 23% of the world’s COVID-19 cases and 21% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. In other parts of the industrialized world, the epidemic has been largely contained: New cases and deaths have been held at a low level as economic activity has expanded. Despite resurgence in many places, nations such as Canada, Germany, and New Zealand are winning the war against the coronavirus. We, by contrast, are losing, falling further behind every single hour—with dreadful consequences.

The path we are on is what very costly defeat looks like. Admitting this is a first, vital step to finding a better way.

We need a COVID-19 D-Day.

This requires the creation and execution of an all-out comprehensive effort to defeat the coronavirus, led by those who recognize the ineluctable alignment between tightly controlling the virus and restoring and improving the economy.

What would a COVID-19 D-Day look like? Here are the critical elements of the plan:

1. (Re)crush the curve: In many states, this means rolling back specific, high-risk reopening activities, such as indoor dining, bars, gyms, houses of worship, and other mass gatherings; in states where cases are surging, reimpose stay-at-home orders and get case numbers down to a level where testing and contact tracing can feasibly keep them low. This aspect of the COVID-19 D-Day depends on the ability of leaders in government, healthcare, and business to earn widespread citizen support.

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2. Universally adopt all feasible precautionary behaviors: mask wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, as well as ongoing vigilance and responsibility. Relative to the sacrifices of the men and women who prepared for and fought in D-Day, these are simple and inexpensive adaptations. Ensuring that these behaviors take hold is the responsibility of leaders at all levels—national, state, city, community, and even neighborhood.

3. Isolate those at known risk of serious illness or death—the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Actively support them with food delivery, provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), necessary medical care, and quarantine.

4. Take a page from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s battle plan: Reopen and then monitor activities in relation to both how economically essential they are and how risky they are in terms of coronavirus transmission. For essential services, such as healthcare, food retail, and many municipal services, crush the risk by ensuring workers in these sectors have adequate PPE and by reengineering processes to reduce transmission possibilities.

And how would we get all of that?

Following and enforcing these guidelines for reopening and for the onset of fall—with schools starting up again and people moving indoors, where the virus spreads more easily and rapidly—are vital elements of a COVID-19 D-Day. But that is not enough. We still need more real leadership at all levels in our society.

At the national level, we need real leaders to do the things than can only be done for the country as a whole, such as defining the threat and harmonizing our collective understanding of it and our response to it. This work demands setting a consistent frame and tone for our battle plan against COVID-19. This work is not a one-off speech but at least weekly updates to keep every citizen informed about the state of the war, their roles in prosecuting the conflict, and the progress being made.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci has tried to communicate the severity of the pandemic and has provided important direction about what ordinary Americans need to do as the pace of reopening quickens. But we need much more expert information and guidance, offered more often and more consistently. At least as important, we need a whole lot less uninformed and inaccurate contrary cross talk by misleaders. (One of the important roles that real leaders play is that they confront and overpower misleaders. Think: FDR and the isolationists.)

We also need national-level guidance coordinated with states and localities, so all Americans hear the truth about what it takes to successfully fight the enemy. On D-Day, most of the troops fighting their way up the beaches of Normandy were from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. But also from many other countries. Imagine if each had reported to a different “Governor,” and felt free to choose their own beach, day, and time for the invasion.

At the same time, many resources, from PPE to testing supplies to plexiglass barriers to vaccine vials, need to be produced, mobilized, and distributed, so that the people and organizations that need them most have sufficient access. And this work will require cooperation, coordination, and mobilization across business and government—activities that are most efficiently and effectively accomplished by the national government, as America’s experience in World War II demonstrates convincingly.

Our performance in fighting the disease in relation to that of other developed countries is miserable.”

President Trump has consistently refused to provide this kind of leadership from the White House. But there are many other leaders—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration—who could and should step up to the plate in this capacity.

At the state level, we need real leadership to develop and operate a fact-based and coherent strategy that is aligned with a smart, disciplined, and effectual national plan. Critically, in our constitutional system, powers that are not reserved to the federal government automatically reside with the states. We need real leaders here to perceive these needs, develop and implement the response, and engage and persuade the citizenry to collaborate and do their jobs. We also need state leaders to monitor the spread of the virus and collect information on transmission rates, hospitalizations, and ICU capacity. State leaders also need “control valves” on economic activity, so that the levels of openings and closings can be adjusted as key metrics of viral spread and resource needs change.

At the city level, we need leadership to organize work on the myriad, varying individual challenges that arise in each local area. By virtue of differences in habits, culture, climate, land use, transportation systems, and many other individual characteristics, specific challenges will arise that are unique to each city—and these challenges and the trade-offs they may require are much more likely to be understood, and creative solutions to them developed, close to the ground where the problems arise.

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Community leaders—close to their constituents, trusted, believed, followed—are a critical resource for mounting a national campaign. These leaders need to enforce orders to wear masks, maintain social distance, and avoid large gatherings. These actions will prove decisive in whether a D-Day COVID-19 national effort succeeds or fizzles.

We need the leaders, at all of these levels, to be part of a large, nationally unified effort.

One team, one fight.

Morally principled. Politically astute. Administratively adept.


Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School, and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, are crisis leadership experts. Koehn’s latest leadership book is Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders. Leonard co-edited Managing Crises: Responses to Large-Scale Emergencies.

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