After this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia (where I live), three of our leaders spoke on national television on Saturday afternoon. Two rose to the occasion; the third did not. Here’s how the Governor and the Mayor upstaged the US President.
One of the hallmarks of a good leader is how they rise to the occasion when crisis occurs. And occur it will. That’s when leaders are really put to the test. Leadership is tough enough when things are running smoothly. It gets really tough when trouble comes.
Crisis also presents an opportunity.
When crisis occurs, leaders can add to their leadership reputation. Or they can do real damage to it. We saw both this past weekend.
In a crisis, leaders assess the situation, gather information and knowledgeable input, identify the options, and plan and execute a well-reasoned response. And they do it quickly. People never look to their leadership more than they do when there is a crisis.
Among the touchstones for leaders during a crisis are the organization’s values (and their own). Another is a strong moral compass. A third is a solid sense of ethics. A fourth, when all is said and done, is the courage to simply say and do the right thing.
Three leaders had such an opportunity this weekend.
One failed; the other two succeeded.
The first was the President. Like 9-11 and other crises, the President had a special role Saturday. In those moments, the President is a calming influence, a source of reassurance, national healer, and “explainer-in-chief”. People want to know what happened, what it means for them, and what happens next. We also want leaders who have the courage to call out the bad guys.
The President failed on almost all these points on Saturday. After condemning violence generally, he delivered a mealy-mouthed statement that talked about how the violence seen in Charlottesville came from “many sides”. He came nowhere near calling out the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the white supremacists, and the anti-Semites. Really? One Sunday morning talk show host called it a “political layup” that the President blew.
Late Saturday Governor Terry McAuliffe also spoke.
He was perfectly willing to call out the bad guys. He said he had a simple message for them: “Go home”. The Governor said “You’re not wanted in this great Commonwealth” (many were from out-of-state). He said “that tile mosaic of immigrants is what makes us so special”. He said he told the President on Saturday, “Stop the rhetoric, stop the hate speech. We’ve got to bring people together”.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer also got it right.
He called out the alt-right people carrying torches who marched on the University Rotunda (which Thomas Jefferson built) Friday night before the rally on Saturday. He said they were people whose ideas belonged “on the trash heap of history”. He said “There’s a very sad and regrettable coarseness in our politics that we’ve all seen too much of today. Our opponents have become our enemies; debate has become intimidation”.
Both the Governor and the Mayor appealed to our “higher angels”. The President on Monday finally got it right with his second statement. His handlers presumably had two days to work on him and help him see the light. Larry Sabato, Director of the UVa Center for Politics, said it was “a couple of days late and several dollars short”. Well said, Mr. Sabato.