Test of Leadership
In historic cases of widespread disease - from the typhoid outbreak in Athens around 430 B.C. to the "Black Death" of the bubonic plague in Europe to the flu epidemic during World War I - the illness usually took years to proliferate. Now, because of the pervasiveness of air travel, an epidemic can spread in a few days. Therefore, there's tremendous urgency for leaders today to respond when faced with this kind of situation.
The first job for a leader at a time such as this, especially a head of government, is to communicate. He must assure people that things are under control, and he can achieve this by quickly and clearly outlining several important pieces of information:
· One, tell people how they can protect themselves.
· Two, explain the actions that the government is taking to protect the public.
· Three, indicate that every precaution is being taken so that those who aren't infected will be kept from exposure to the disease.
· And four, show that everything will be done to care for the people who have the illness or who are suspected of having it.
This is the ultimate exercise in crisis management and a great test of leadership. A leader has to strike the perfect balance in tone - cautious but not alarmist. When should he begin to issue precautions to the public? I think early in the process. Otherwise, imagine the anger and resentment if the disease were to spread and people felt they hadn't been warned. In the case of a potential pandemic, a lack of information could be literally fatal.
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