No guarantee leadership roles will produce leaders

Leadership is an elusive quality.

When we think of leaders, we often list people in leadership roles. They are the boss; they make the decisions.

But in reality, having a leadership role does not necessarily make those people true leaders. Someone once explained the distinction this way: “Actions, not words, are the ultimate results of leadership.”

On the eve of D-Day in 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower delivered an inspiring message to the soldiers, sailors and aviators poised to embark the next morning on the largest invasion the world has ever seen.

He told them, “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck!”

As those men departed for France, Eisenhower’s leadership showed up on a small piece of paper tucked in his pocket. It was a handwritten statement he would issue if the invasion failed.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” Eisenhower wrote. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

There were numerous examples of leadership on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four passenger jets. Two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York. One was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon.

The fourth jet didn’t make it to Washington, D.C., where its target was thought to be the Capitol. It didn’t reach its target is because of the leadership displayed by a knot of passengers, armed with an airline beverage cart, who decided to try to overpower the hijackers.

One of the leaders of the passenger revolt was Todd Beamer, 32, a computer salesman from New Jersey.

When hijackers forced their way into the cockpit and took the controls, some passengers made quick cell phone calls to loved ones and learned of the other hijackings. Beamer and a few passengers began devising a plan to thwart the terrorists’ intentions.

Thirty minutes after the hijacking, Beamer told his little group: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!”

Three minutes later, the United Airlines jet plowed into the Earth near Shanksville, Pa., at 560 mph. The jet was about 20 minutes from the Capitol when Beamer led his group into action.

I have been thinking about leadership lately as the coronavirus crisis sweeps across the United States.

The virus has exacted a terrible price. By the time you read this, the number of deaths in the U.S. will have surpassed 400.

Countless businesses have been forced to close. Unemployment is reaching levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. People have seen a significant portion of their retirement savings evaporate. And supplies of protective gear are running critically low for doctors and nurses fighting the disease and for the paramedics and firefighters who are summoned to the homes and care centers when people become sick.

To their credit, President Donald Trump, the federal government and Congress worked swiftly last week to provide economic assistance to the people and businesses. The president and his staff promise that shipments are beginning to catch up with demand for test kits, protective gear for medical workers, and ventilators to help patients breathe while their bodies try to heal.

But I cannot help but think the effects of this pandemic could have been lessened if the president had paid more attention to the warnings he received starting at the beginning of January and continuing into February. The warnings came from the federal government’s intelligence agencies and from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak in China was becoming apparent.

A two-month head start would have allowed the federal government to order and stockpile huge quantities of test kits, protective medical gear and ventilators, so we wouldn’t be waiting for those supplies to arrive now.

Instead, in January and February the president minimized the severity of the outbreak and did nothing to direct the federal government to marshal the supplies that would be needed to fight the disease.

But he was complacent. He said on Jan. 22 the virus was “totally under control.” A month later, on Feb. 26, he predicted coronavirus cases in the U.S. “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

He called the virus a hoax that was being foisted on Americans by Democrats and the news media.

And then last week, an NBC reporter asked the president what he would say to millions of Americans who are scared right now --- like the people I know who are worried about their jobs and fear for the health of their loved ones.

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say,” the president replied. “I think that’s a very nasty question.”

The president’s animosity clouded his judgment last week. And in January and February, he took his eye off what should have been his crystal-clear goal: to steer the U.S. through this gigantic economic and health crisis.

Now, as all of us try to cope with what now is a fact of life, we hope the president and the federal government will make up for lost time.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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