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Leadership and COVID: why Doctor David Williams needs to resign

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.


Over a decade ago, I read an article about the power of narrative and the role storytelling plays in successful leadership. Drew Westen’s core point has stuck with me. As a business person, I recognize how narrative shapes the success of projects and businesses. I’ve wondered about the unrecognized possibilities to be found in combining effective leadership, storytelling, and monetary policy. Yesterday, I was reminded of the dynamic between leadership, storytelling, and success by the announcement that New Zealand no longer has any hospitalized cases of COVID-19.

There are many factors that affect how societies are able to cope with COVID, but one doesn’t have to look far to find lots of evidence that leadership makes a difference. COVID and the climate crisis both require us to act in concert to achieve an important survival goal. However, with COVID, the ways in which we can make a difference are more immediately obvious, actionable, and consequential.

Fighting SARS-CoV-2 is a team effort the likes of which humanity hasn’t seen since our last highly contagious global pandemic. All team effort requires leadership. This doesn’t mean that only one person must play the role of leader, it means that the functions of determining and telling a compelling story about the direction of the team’s activity, mustering support for the effort, coordinating how each team member contributes, and managing communication and disagreement must all be attended to. It is rare that a single person can perform all these functions. It’s also rare for a team to achieve things collaboratively without individuals clearly assuming those responsibilities.

Visionary leadership focuses on communicating a goal and engaging support, while coordination, communication, and managing disagreement are the nuts and bolts of effective teamwork. Perhaps because clarity of vision emerges most easily when there is one person speaking, we tend to see the people who perform the vision, narrative, and engagement functions as our leaders.

In addition to these functions, there is a relational and emotional dimension to leadership which is about belonging. Belonging is the glue that cements engagement and enables teams to survive and function despite disagreement or even confusion around the vision or other aspects of the team’s work. Sometimes, belonging is created by shared characteristics of team members, such as citizenship or gender. Leaders who can cultivate feelings of belonging give their teams an edge in succeeding, especially when tasks are difficult or unclear.

There are several ways of cultivating belonging as a leader: communicating with authenticity and emotion, acting in ways that foster admiration, or espousing values that are already shared, can all do the trick.

Even from a distance, it’s been clear that Jacinda Ardern has done a great job on many of these fronts. She has already dealt with past tragedy effectively pre-COVID, and now all of New Zealand can take pride in its COVID-fighting success. I doubt many would argue that Ardern’s ability to lead effectively played an important role.

In Canada, we have a mixed bag. Some of our provinces have coped well. British Columbia stands out as a province that battled a significant problem early on and now has achieved a cautious success. Again, leadership was important. Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Officer of Health, is a veteran of Toronto’s SARS crisis.

So far, Ontario has managed to avoid the horror of overwhelmed ICUs, but as we reopen economically, gaps in our capacity for teamwork are starting to become very obvious. I count myself among those who have been pleasantly surprised and deeply thankful that our Conservative premier Doug Ford has found a stride of sorts in our dealings with COVID. Unlike many other Conservative leaders elsewhere, he has so far deferred to experts and expressed unequivocally the need to make health a priority even as we struggle to maintain our economy. Ford has called upon the province to pull together, spoken emotionally in ways that have successfully engendered support for distancing and lockdown, and, at least until recent news about squalid conditions in longterm care homes, was gaining the admiration of some who have never imagined supporting him.

Unfortunately, the expert Premier Ford is relying on—Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams—lacks Dr. Henry’s leadership gifts. Dr. Henry has been able to share a compelling vision of the efforts required to fight COVID-19 while attending to an effective leader’s other functions, such as increasing engagement and feelings of belonging through her candid emotionality and authenticity. Her messages have been clear and mostly consistent, and the results are admirable.

I will not catalogue Dr. Williams’s failings in comparison, but Toronto journalist Bruce Arthur has referred to Dr. Williams’ public media appearances asdaily confusion masterpieces”. Arthur recently noted that “From a communications standpoint, if Dr. Williams gave me directions to my own house, I might get lost on the way.” The impact of Dr. Williams’s failure as a leader was made painfully clear after a crowd estimated at ten thousand people showed up at a downtown Toronto park, making social distancing impossible. In a video recently compiled by local media, Premier Ford, Dr. Williams, his associate Dr. Yaffe, and Ontario’s Minister of Health Christine Elliott all gave conflicting statements relating to this incident.

For the benefit of the entire country, we cannot have these kinds of events happen. How will we continue to engage the support of citizens for distancing and other efforts such as hygiene and mask-wearing when our political and public health leaders are so clearly not on the same page? We need buy-in and coordinated effort. We need leaders we can admire and respect to tell us stories that engage and motivate us. We need our leaders to cultivate a sense of belonging and consequent commitment to acting in ways that protect the weakest in our communities.

It hurts me to say it because I have heard that Dr. Williams is a lovely man, and I rarely relish attacking anyone, but he is clearly not up to this task.

Dr. David Fisman, a Toronto epidemiologist who is blunt in both his positive and constructive feedback on Ontario’s COVID response, has tweeted about the price Ontario is paying because we do not have effective public health leadership. Given the collegiality of the medical profession—at least, superficially—it is understandable that doctors might hesitate to voice their support for the removal of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, but people are getting sick and dying because we are not coping with COVID-19 as well as we could.

It is understandable that Premier Ford has been reluctant to fire Dr. Williams in the middle of a pandemic. But there is an alternative. At certain points in our lives, we all have to confront the fact that we have failed and decide what do to about it. Doing so publicly is humiliating and hurtful. However, despite this, Dr. Williams, this is your moment to confront that fact. There is no shame, and some honour, in recognizing and owning this failure. It is time to step aside and make way for others so that we can all succeed. Please resign.


Thanks to LM for links and Start to Finish Agency for editing.
Photo – Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.