On Sunday, two leaders a world — or merely a pond — apart addressed their constituencies. Gov. Tim Walz delivered an abbreviated and delayed State of the State address to the people of Minnesota, while Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare address that was only the fifth in her 68-year reign, spoke to the people of Britain about the historic and trying nature of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In times of crises, leaders aren’t made, they are revealed. And the past few weeks have revealed a lot.
We’ve seen new leaders emerge, like U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, who pleaded with the Pentagon for help as the coronavirus spread throughout the aircraft carrier he commanded. Crozier wrote: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset.” Those words are powerful. They caught the Navy’s and the American public’s attention. Whether you agree with him or not, for him to have expressed concisely what his people needed, even though it would ultimately cost him his job, was leadership.
But for every leader who has used their voice and position to advocate for the people they lead, we’ve seen just as many who have faltered. Leaders who have been slow to act — placing their employees or citizens in harm’s way — because the current reality is difficult, messy and inconvenient. Leaders who have used their voices to spread misinformation because the false stories online or unchecked rumors are more palatable than the truth. Or at the most extreme, leaders who have questioned the veracity of what our scientists and public health officials have advised simply because what they are saying is overwhelming, unprecedented and scary.
It’s not always easy to articulate why some leaders are better than others in a crisis, but we know it when we see it and feel it.
I felt it with Gov. Walz and Queen Elizabeth II on Sunday night.
Here’s what they did well:
They set an appropriate tone.
Queen Elizabeth: “I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country. … Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.”
Gov. Walz: “We are used to long winters in Minnesota. We are resilient people with a deep reserve of courage, optimism and grit. But this will be a winter like we’ve never seen before. … Minnesotans won’t just prepare for COVID-19 — we will lead.”
Though their speaking styles are different, both Walz and the queen hit the right tone with their messages: serious, solemn and steady, yet also optimistic and reassuring, calling for courage, resolve, unity, and in Minnesota’s case, leadership.
They validated emotions.
Elizabeth: “Today, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now … we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.”
Walz: “This is hard for everyone. Take a deep breath. Be kind to yourself. We are all doing the best we can — and that’s all we can do.”
Responding to a collective traumatic experience by pretending that everything is normal is not only bad form, it can exacerbate the negative effects of a crisis. Emotion trumps logic, and unless leaders address that emotion, no one will be ready to listen to the facts.
They used thoughtful messages, rooted in their values.
Elizabeth: “And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”
Walz: “We won’t just make it to spring. We will come out better on the other side of this winter. Because we are Minnesotans. We see challenges — and we tackle them. No matter how daunting the challenge; no matter how dark the times; Minnesota has always risen up — by coming together.”
Both leaders drew upon the values and attributes unique to Minnesotans and Britons alike, pairing them with thoughtful encouragement and calls to action to create a special message that would resonate with their audiences. Importantly, both leaders also gave special recognition to the public health workers on the front lines.
They sounded like people, not institutions.
Elizabeth: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Walz: “My promise is to continue to communicate my decisions, explain when we change course, and never stop fighting alongside you, the people of Minnesota.”
Offering to let people in on his thinking, as Walz did, or acknowledging the need to be with friends and family, as the queen did, made these two leaders sound like people. People who recognize that this time is hard, lonely and uncertain. This isn’t soft, it’s human. Public trust in institutions is at an all-time low. We want to hear from human beings — not the “government.” Both of these leaders did that.
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As I train and ready companies to respond to crises, I always remind them that they will be judged more on their response to the crisis than the crisis itself. It’s reassuring. It means that no matter what challenge comes your way, the most important part is the way you respond. And the response is something every leader has in his or her own control.
This is a rare moment when every leader has the same crisis. It’s a level playing field — an apples-to-apples comparison. Pay attention. Leaders across all industries and sectors are responding, and in doing so, they are revealing a lot about themselves.
Jennifer Hellman is a crisis communications expert at Goff Public, a Minnesota-based public relations and public affairs firm. More of her advice can be found on Twitter: @crisiscoach.