Leadership in times of Challenge and Setbacks

Canute Thompson

Today, January 20, 2022, marks the first anniversary of President Biden’s time in office.  It has been a mixed year with successes and setbacks with the setbacks appearing to outweigh the successes.  While his nearly $2T stimulus package (Rescue Plan) has brought relief to many middle class and poor Americans it has fueled inflation.  Alongside the stimulus package is the $1.2T infrastructure plan which will see some $550B spent on infrastructure thereby upgrading roads and bridges and providing internet services to under-served areas among other things.

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden

But these successes appear to be overshadowed by the failure of the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass the Voting Rights Bill, a situation which is attributable in large part, if not exclusively, to the refusal by two Senate Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support the suspension of the Senate rule requiring sixty votes to pass the Bill.  The fact that these two senators have held their ground and denied the President of an important legislative and socially and historically  significant achievement, must have made the President deeply frustrated, angry, and hurt.  I would be deeply hurt if I were in Biden’s situation.

It’s OK for leaders to feel hurt, but…

With such a massive blow to the President’s and Democrats’ agenda what should he do?  He met with the two Senators repeatedly pleading with them, so did other Senate leaders and yet they remain unmoved.  If Biden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer feel hurt, angry, upset, that would be quite understandable.  It is normal, natural, and healthy to feel and express, in an appropriate manner, these emotions, but after those emotions are expressed, it is back to work seeking to get the job done and not stopping until its done or until one’s time expires.

The relentless pursuit of goals, despite setbacks and difficulties, is what leaders are required to do and how they are to be.  Giving up is more often than not, not an option, and succumbing to one’s inner hurts and causing those hurts to become the defining features of how we are, as leaders, are not  winning strategies.  From all indications, public pronouncements and public legislative agenda, Biden and the Democrats have no intention of giving up and they dare not!

Dealing with Setbacks Creatively

One of the most important lessons responsible parents teach their children is to expect setbacks, and these parents also suggest some strategies for coping with and overcoming setbacks.  Those lessons we learn in Kindergarten / Infant School (I like the word “Infant” in this context) remain relevant for all our lives including, perhaps especially, when we are in leadership positions.

Another important lesson responsible parents teach their children and teachers teach in Infant School is that we should expect opposition, discomfort, difficulties, and delays.  Famed author, the late Scott Peck in his bestseller, The Roadless Travelled, begins with the words “Life is difficult”.  This is a simple fact but often forgotten.  Peck goes on to say that the psychologically balanced person, by virtue of expecting difficulties is already positioned to coped. In effect, the expectation means that the person will not be taken off guard by the difficulty, at least sometimes – hopefully most times.

Les Brown/Photo courtesy of Fearless Motivation
Les Brown/Photo courtesy of Fearless Motivation

Motivational speakers such as Les Brown, Zig Zigler, Lou Heckler, and Norman Vincent Peale always remind their audiences to acquire and maintain a positive attitude regardless of what the circumstances may be and how difficult they seem.  And no, being positive and expecting difficulties are not mutually exclusive.  The key is that while mindful that difficulties may arise, the positive thinker will hold fast to the conviction that he or she will  be able to overcome those difficulties applying creativity and learn and grow from them.

“Argument Done”.

Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness is facing a tough time as Prime Minister.  The country, like others, is facing unprecedented levels of infection due to the highly contagious Omicron variant of the corona virus.  Jamaica has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the Caribbean at 43 per 100 people who have received at least a single dose.  Since most of the types of vaccines more widely available require a second dose, the percentage of the population fully vaccinated is much lower.  With the record levels of infections have come increased hospitalizations. All public hospitals are in excess of capacity and many health workers are off the job due to being infected or quarantined.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Prime Minister Andrew Holness

During the earlier periods of the pandemic, the Holness administration used “No Movement Days” and curfews extensively.  These measures had adverse impacts on commercial and entertainment activities and the Prime Minister, in a revealing disclosure, admitted that pressure from special interests had factored in his decisions on easing lockdowns, and thus a few weeks ago indicated that there would be no more lockdowns.

With the high positivity infection rates, hospitals buckling, and sick healthcare workers, a reporter asked the Prime Minister whether he would reconsider his earlier position of no more lockdowns.  The Prime Minister responded saying people must go and get vaccinated, “argument done”. 

A generous interpretation of the PM’s words is that what he was saying is that he had done all he could and that there was nothing else he could do, so the vaccine is the solution and people should get vaccinated…”full stop” or “argument done”.

The Prime Minister’s response is problematic at several levels, but I will mention only three:

  • The idea of “argument done” suggests that there is only one effective solution available so people must engage that solution;
  • The words and the tone suggest that the prime minister has ran out of options for dealing with the problem and has no intention of trying to find any other;
  • The prime minister is unwilling to even entertain a discussion on other solutions.

Taken individually and collectively, the Prime Minister’s words suggest that he has lost the plot and given up.  The question that this interpretation raises is whether a leader of a country, in a crisis, has the freedom and luxury to simply say he is done with trying to find solutions to the crisis.  I think, definitely not.

Face of the Vaccination (Behaviour) Drive

The Prime Minister was the “face” of Jamaica’s vaccination campaign as he was of the management of the crisis, until signs of failure and mismanagement began to emerge.  With the PM having been front and centre of the vaccination drive, the degree of hesitancy the country is seeing is a direct indication that his efforts at persuasion have been ineffective.  In other words, the efforts of the government, generally, and the PM in particular have encountered stiff setbacks.

The question that arises is: What should the government do in the face of this setback?  I contend that giving up, behaving as though there are no other solutions, refusing to listen to and consider other solutions, getting upset and showing it visibly, are all unacceptable. They are unacceptable, not because the behaviours are not human but because the outcome is the result of his own shortcomings, ‘defects’ as a messenger, a person with reference power, an influencer, and a trusted voice on the subject.

Thus, rather than behaving in what many considered to have been a belligerent manner, the PM, like President Biden, should do TEN easily stated, difficult, but nonetheless necessary doable things, namely:

  • Acknowledge failure in specific terms
  • Assess what he is doing that is causing the undesirable results
  • Take responsibility for failure while affirming successes and celebrating achievements
  • Use sense of failure and lessons from successes to fuel new efforts to tackle difficulties
  • Recommit to getting the job done
  • Adopt new strategies
  • Remain focused
  • Accept criticisms
  • Be open to ideas
  • Build coalitions

I would urge those sympathizers of the Prime Minister who are seeking to parse his “argument done” defence, to acknowledge that that is an ineffective strategy both politically and morally for it cannot assist us in this crisis.  We all fail at some things.  Leadership is a tough job, but no one ever said leading a country would be easy, but responsible leaders rise to the challenge in times of difficulty.

I commend Biden for his efforts and his resolve of getting the voting rights Bills passed. 

I urge Holness to consider my ten suggestions.

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