What They Teach Us: Andrew Cuomo And Leadership In A Time Of Crisis

Leadership Lesson: It’s important to take away what we can from the best examples of leadership, even in a crisis, when the leadership can either shine or not.

Where do you get your leadership fix?

Who do you look to who you, if not follow, at least consider dependable, knowing they’re taking care of your environmental, organizational, or, hell, even psychological needs?

Like, who do you look to and think Shit, okay. I know this person is on top of things?

COVID-19 has hit the U.S. (I pray to God there’s no need to include a hyperlink to any background on the virus because you’re well aware and informed of what’s going on.)

(…You know what’s going on, right?)

In any case, we first learned about coronavirus as it took hold far across the globe and watched as it made its way from continent to continent, landing in the United States and coursing a similar contagious path throughout the states.

We had already imagined the worst about how far-reaching and devastating it could be before it even reached our shores, but the urgency ticked up when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

This is a worldwide issue the likes of which our era has never seen. Nothing has impacted us simultaneously across the world like this. The virus doesn’t discriminate, so there’s no location, business, or region that’s safe from its debilitating and possibly fatal infection. Each of us will be impacted by it eventually, knowing someone from within our various degrees of relationships who will become infected.

And when it comes to how government has handled the crisis, responses first included putting out guidance on how to combat the spread and contain the virus. Not long after, though, with containment no longer feasible, the government then focused on mitigation with states forced to take urgent steps, limiting gatherings and congregations to a set number of participants. But now it’s gotten to the point where some states are enforcing stay-at-home policies, allowing flexibility for essential workers and businesses only.

As the situation became more dire, and in the buildup to the our own personal quarantines, most of us looked for regular updates from our leaders. We wanted to know what was going on, what was being done, and what the plan was going forward. Political figures from every level of government have come on camera a few times a day, flanked by their officers and emergency response partners, to deliver the day’s latest news and statistics.

And thanks to the media, we’ve seen in real-time the political responses from across the country, with clips scattered across every network demonstrating what it is leaders throughout the country are doing, hoping, and expecting for their immediate areas, their own constituents, and the nation at large.

And, as it is with politicians in general in times of peace, so it is in times of high stress and concern: varying levels of aptitude and ability are put on display. It’s no judgement on any politician – at all. It’s just the reality.

It’s pretty obvious who is lacking and flailing, who is effective, rising to the occasion, and who should just not be allowed to speak at all.

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One leader who has stood out during this crisis is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo.

There are various high points he hit during his March 21st press conference (video below), a list that should be studied by all students of leadership. And, yes, it’s a list, because yes, his remarks were prepared. Yes, he may have staff that has input into what he should address. But the fact that most of these points are hit is evidence that he finds them important.

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And, yes, he may be kicking it up a notch to demonstrate his political command and composure when it comes to handling a crisis.

Regardless, this is what people need to hear when it comes to a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

Below the video are some points I took away from his presser, timestamped for your curiosity and convenience.

:14 – “You Know The People Who Are Here Today”

This is introducing the players at the table. Who are you standing (or sitting) with? Who is it you trust enough to have around you? Demonstrate the key players at your level and whom you trust.

:38 – “Go Through The Facts”

Convey the regular update of information. What’s going on? Where do we stand? What’s changed? Information is key.

:58 – “What Are We Doing…”

In general, outline the steps now being implemented to address the crises. Specifically, due to changes in circumstances, what actions are being taken to tackle the situation?

4:55 – “I Put Out A Plea Yesterday To Ask Them For Help”

When help is needed, state so clearly and publicly. People want to know you’re not above asking for help, risking biting off more than you can chew.

5:40 – “I Want To Thank…

It’s important to outline those not standing beside you but who are important partners, respecting their participation and collaboration and painting the picture of who’s in on the operation.

10:32 – “I Give This Caution Because I Think People Misinterpret…”

Here he provides clarification on what a positive test means. It’s key to educate and remind people as to what the circumstances mean, so that there’s no misinterpretation leading to either complacency or additional panic.

11:40 – “I Spoke To The President and Vice-President…”

If there’s anything most people in leadership lack in their operational approach, it’s that they don’t keep those in their charge apprised of what’s going on in the hierarchy above them. Leaders shouldn’t be a wall blocking information but instead a conduit of priorities and information.

12:13 – “We’re Doing More Tests Than Any State.”

It’s important to convey how things compare to comparable entities. It’s not necessarily a competition, but people want to know where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

16:35 – “This Is Not A Science Fiction Movie.”

This reminds constituents and stakeholders to stick to reality. They shouldn’t build things up too much in their heads based on things they may have seen in the past. Look at the facts. Don’t lose yourself to misperception, fear, and opinions.

17:30 – “Again, Context: People Who Died From The Flu…”

Context to other crises helps us “keep things in perspective.” Helping people keep things in perspective allows them to utilize their energy on what they should deal with today – specifically here their own health. They’re not off, stripping themselves of energy by panicking that this is exactly like a previous crisis or event.

18:23 – “Also, In Terms Of Context And Perspective: Don’t Listen To Rumors.”

This is a reminder to stick to the facts in a time of anxiety and stress and strongly consider where you get your information.

18:37 – “There’s No Reason To Buy 100 Rolls of Toilet Paper. There really isn’t. And by the way, where do you even put 100 rolls of toilet paper?”

Don’t let crises kill humor. Levity can relax people. It plays into their emotion. There needs to be a good balance of emotion vs. facts.

19:55 – “I Have Not Hidden Anything.” (FDR Reference)

Clarify that the truth is important. The fact that a leader can say explicitly that they are telling the truth helps others realize that leader sees the importance of telling it like it is. Cuomo also quickly breaks down the psychology of people’s perceptions of truth and how that can trigger anxiety in his audience and constituents if they feel they’re being lied to.

20:50 – “Younger People Who Are Not Complying…”

“You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.” It’s important to call out stakeholders who aren’t listening, especially if it has to do with their health and that of others. By outlining in a civil, organized, and thorough manner the urgency that someone is ignoring, we can work toward convincing someone to take things seriously.

22:41 – “This is my personal opinion. This is not a fact.”

It’s powerful that a leader can more or less say, This is the information I owe you in my capacity as your official leader…now let me tell you where I am personally. Some leaders do too much of one or the other. It’s good to provide both when given the chance and explain why you stand where you stand.

He also establishes public health as a pillar under Social Responsibility. And why not? If a leader can make a case for reframing something in order to get others to see the urgency of a matter, have at it.

24:08 – “We Are All First Responders.”

It’s important to demonstrate that, when possible and doable, we can all help. We all can play a role.

26:11 – “Something People Aren’t Really Talking About…”

Although I have heard mentions and concerns about the social consequences, Governor Cuomo talks about the social consequences he believes haven’t been addressed. It’s important that a leader mention areas that they believe have not been addressed and might be lost in the headlines of other urgent priorities.

27:23 – “I’m asking ________, who are willing to volunteer their time…”

Another plea for help. It’s important to consider and find out what the community can provide through volunteering. How do those who can contribute resources (of any kind) do so?

28:55 – “The Bigger Question To Me Is What Do We Learn About Ourselves?”

Here, the leader can outline what the lesson and takeaway can be to each of those impacted. He mentions the impact of 9/11 and the vulnerability felt after such a major event. He mentions that crisis brings out the truth and people’s strengths and weaknesses. So, here, it’s not just about working in what needs to get done but also working on it. It’s about standing outside the situation and realizing society and individuals are growing, developing, changing, and learning.

30:55 – “First, There Are People Who Are Doing Extraordinary Work Who Deserve Our Thanks.”

Unfortunately, we’re not in the habit of realizing or thinking about who’s on the front line and who deserves the most thanks. Every so often, that thanks should be given. Gratitude is powerful in leadership.

32:40 – “We Don’t Talk About Practicing Humanity.”

Again, an explicit plea to realize what goes into the work and functioning of an environment from a personal and emotional, almost existential standpoint.

33:57 – “That’s Why I’m Proud To Be A New Yorker.”

Understand your organization, your team, your people. Know the perception others have of it. Know the pride you should carry and demonstrate. Realizing who you are and what your group is can build camaraderie and solidarity for going forward.

And, sure, some will say, “He’s a politician. He knows when he has the spotlight. Of course he’s supposed to act that way, especially in a time of crisis.”


But I haven’t seen another leader hit all those high marks in one sitting.

And it’s not that we all have to – especially not in any one sitting or situation of leadership. But know them.

The same way we can extrapolate everyday leadership and enhance it to meet the challenges of a crisis, when we see great examples of leadership in a crisis, we can think about how we can draw down those lessons to our own everyday leadership.

Know what each of those time-stamped points above provides to the overall goal of the messaging. Recognize how, overall, they convey facts, emotion, and urgency – key tools of leadership – especially when people need to hear them most.

Keep all of these thoughts in mind, especially in a time for crisis. If you don’t come through for your followers in a time of crisis when people’s backs are against the wall, they will remember it, and your reputation will take a hit for when things are back to normal.

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