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On leadership during Covid-19

As is often the case in a calamity, the reason for the calamity and the barrier to success has not been a technical one, but instead one of leadership. While we watch some communities and leaders in our nation and world come together to fight back effectively against COVID-19, there are other communities and leaders that haven’t done as good of a job. This isn’t a political statement because there have been great leaders on all sides of the political spectrum. And there have also been poor ones on all sides.

Being a leader is tough enough in good times. It’s extraordinarily challenging in difficult times like we are facing with a global pandemic. And I’ll acknowledge there are few black and white issues here, especially since we don’t have the whole story. My goal is simply to highlight some great elements of leadership, which are critical in these times.

In good times and in bad, effective leadership comes down to the same things: good communication, solid decision making, and supporting your team. These concepts aren’t rocket science, and yet, over and over again, we see leaders fail to perform these critical tasks.

Governor Mike Dewine of Ohio has exemplified all of these key leadership traits in his handling of this threat. First, while it seemed controversial at the time, Gov. Dewine essentially shut down Ohio earlier than most states by restricting big gatherings, encouraging schools to shutter, and limiting dining in restaurants. This decisive action has shielded Ohio from much of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Second, he and his team have been available for daily 90-minute public briefings and his handling of the crisis with both clarity and empathy have been widely praised by Ohioians and others. And finally, Gov. Dewine has relied on his team to help him be successful, leaning heavily on the director of the Ohio Department of Health Amy Acton, who has found a bit of a cult following with her approach to this pandemic.

And even during this time of stay-at-home orders with less people moving around, we’re finding that mobility is still essential. And these same leadership qualities that are effective in a COVID-19 response are similarly effective applied to issues related around mobility during this crisis.

Clear Communication
As APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas detailed on episode 58 of The Movement Podcast a few weeks ago when discussing APTA’s response to COVID-19, Paul has focused on communicating not only with his team to ensure they have what they need to be successful but also with key stakeholders like FTA’s Acting Administrator Jane Williams and members of Congress. This has resulted in a significant investment in public transit relief in the recent CARES Act.

Even though many communities have stay-at-home orders now, outdoor exercise with appropriate social distancing is thankfully still allowed. The problem is that many sidewalks can’t handle the extra pedestrian traffic as people try to shed that cabin fever while also ensuring they stay six feet from others. The solution? Many cities have closed down streets to cars–especially in parks in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Portland–so that pedestrians and cyclists can get their fresh air safely, without worry about virus exposure or unsafe drivers. (Note that The Movement Podcast episode 57 guest Mike Lydon has created a directory of Livable Streets responses to COVID-19 by communities.)

Support Your People
Kansas City Area Transportation Authority was already trying to figure out ways to go fare-free (as Kansas City council member Eric Burch shared on The Movement Podcast episode 50), but they are getting a sneak preview now as they and many other transit agencies are instituting rear boarding only on buses in order to help ensure social distancing between passengers and bus operators. The auxiliary benefit–at least for riders–is that since the farebox is at the front of the vehicle, passengers don’t have to pay a fare.

In these crazy times, leadership is more important than ever, whether that is ensuring our world can overcome this challenging virus or we can move around our communities as effectively and safely as possible. At the end of the day, however, it is about leadership.

Stay home and stay safe!