At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, with New York suddenly the epicenter of coronavirus response, the state’s—and the nation’s—attention turned to Governor Andrew Cuomo ’82. We spoke with the governor about leading in times of calm and crisis: his approach, his takeaways, and his advice for the next generation.
Thank you for talking with us today about leadership. How would you describe your leadership style? Who inspired it?
A governor has to set an agenda, identify priorities, allocate resources. That’s an intellectual function, something that any number people can do in the quiet of their offices. Being a leader in a modern democracy has a dynamic dimension as well. You have to actively present your ideas to the people, to interest groups, to advocates, to legislators, and build support. The third dimension is that you have to be a disruptor. In private enterprises, the profit motive tends to keep the business driving forward, innovating, creating efficiencies, expanding. There is no profit motive in government, so leaders have to be respon- sible for encouraging people, fighting complacency, and inviting fresh thinking. Added together, being a leader means being active, engaged, demanding. My inspiration, as a governor and as a person, comes from my father.
He and I have different styles and personalities, but everything I believe about the responsibility of government to help improve people’s lives I learned from him.
Let’s get into crisis response—there are so many lessons to take from the COVID-19 pandemic. First, how important is being visible in a crisis?
COVID-19 is mysterious, fast-moving, and lethal. It affects everyone, and every dimension of our lives. That’s frightening and disturbing. During times of danger, fear, crisis, people need to be able to see and hear their leaders. Ultimately, this is why they hired us. They depend on us Gov. Cuomo participates in the disinfection process of a No. 7 Subway car in Queens, N.Y. to coordinate a response. They want to hear the facts as we know them, the science as we understand it, and our plans, as best as we can formulate them. When people can see you and hear you sharing the information you have, you build a bond of trust. As a result, they almost always accept the responsibility to do their part to solve the problem. So visibility helps accomplish that much. But visibility doesn’t help if you don’t know what you’re talking about, or if you don’t tell the truth. Winston Churchill’s greatest act of courage during World War II wasn’t facing the German army; it was facing the British people, and telling them the hard truth about their predicament. Visibility is irrelevant if you lie to people.
From the first days of the outbreak you started giving real-time updates, speaking directly to New Yorkers. But many of your briefings were also carried by cable news networks, giving you a much broader reach. Did having a national audience change your approach at all? Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of steady, reliable leadership from Washington, people saw our briefings on the situation in New York—which for a time, was the epicenter of the pandemic—and they began to trust what we were saying. But no, it did not change my approach: follow the facts, follow the science, focus on fighting the disease.
You held press briefings for 111 consecutive days at one point. What was that experience like? How do you manage your team—and your own health—to perform at a high level, in the public eye, over a sustained period of time?
I don’t think I ever thought about those questions. How many times in our lives do we face challenges and say, “Relax, it’s not life or death.” Not this time; this was life or death. We did what we needed to do, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way my team rose to the occasion. I have often said I have some of the smartest, most dedicated people in government working in my administration. They proved that over and over during this crisis.
We’veseen you take a COVID-19 test on camera. We’ve seen you “mask up” in public. What are your thoughts on showing vs. telling when it comes to leadership?
If you are not in front, are you really leading? It makes a difference when a leader shows the people that he is of them, not above them. When I talked about my fears for my mother, my worries about my brother and his family, my concerns for my children, people who had been responding to me on an intellectual level began to respond on a deeper, more emotional level. By doing that, they strengthened their commitment to doing their part to fight the virus.
Anyone who has given a big presentation can relate to your use of PowerPoint slides. I’d love to know more about your thoughts on visual aids and specifically, as one website put it, how you “draw on the persuasive authority of PowerPoint.”
I get kidded about how much I use PowerPoint.
I don’t know why. It works for me. Jacob deGrom doesn’t get kidded about using a four-seam fastball. PowerPoints combine the best of a speech with the added benefit of visuals that help us explain complex ideas. I understand, just as members of the media understand, the power of visuals to help communicate messages by engaging the public.
On collaboration: What are the keys to working with other leaders or stakeholders—some of whom may disagree with you—to get things done?
The key is to remember that there is a difference between politics and government. Politics is full of passion and disagreement. Emotions can run very high. Government should avoid that. I have been chosen by the voters to work within a system with a lot of other people who have also been chosen by voters. Once we are elected, our parties are secondary; we all have the responsibility to serve the people.
President Johnson liked to say, “Come, let us reason together.” Politics is the place for emotion; government is the place for reason. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. When possible, we’ve tried to find common ground that we can build on. That includes Republicans and Democrats. It includes other governors and even the president. I have said throughout the COVID-19 crisis that when President Trump does something positive, something that helps us, I will praise him. When he does something that hurts New Yorkers, I will not hesitate to call him out for it. I try to put the interests of the people ahead of politics. When we do that, we can work together to get things done.
When should a leader ask for help? When should one give help?
The answer is the same in both cases: whenever it’s needed. We have been successful in New York, it happened because 19 million people helped make it happen. They washed their hands, they wore masks, they practiced social distancing. They stood up to the fear, and the anxiety. Our essential workers came to work every day even when it was risky to do so. Democracy is based on the need for help. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. We are stronger together than we are alone.
How did your legal education—your training as a lawyer— prepare you to meet this moment?
There is a logic to the law. It’s grounded in precedent and in fact. The law is driven by a search for the truth. Fighting this pandemic involves a search for the truth as well. Every day I faced a jury of 19 million people. Every day I presented the best evidence I could assemble. We were looking for a verdict of cooperation. So far, we have won the decision we sought.
What advice on leadership would you give law students or up-and-coming public servants?
Don’t aspire to leadership. Aspire to excellence—moral and intellectual excellence. If you attain that, leadership will find you.
Can those in the private sector apply that advice, too?
I don’t know why not. If leadership is truly looking for long-term gains that benefit their enterprises and their customers, they have to aspire to excellence. Unfortunately, we all too often see people in the private sector who rely on something less to enrich themselves.
What lessons in leadership have you learned from this experience?
I learned, once again, that leadership is about preparation—looking ahead to what’s coming, and preparing for it. Generally speaking, we were not prepared for this pandemic. Nobody was, and the people in Washington who had the most responsibility for being prepared contributed the least. In New York, we found ourselves constantly reacting to events. But there were times when we were able to look ahead and see what was coming, and that helped us. For example, even before we had one confirmed patient, we recognized that the testing protocol set up by Washington was failing.
So we developed our own test, got the FDA to approve it, and immediately recruited private and hospital laboratories in the state to process the tests. New York has done as a result more testing per capita than most countries. And that has saved lives.
Governor Cuomo, we appreciate your time.