Crisis Leadership Essentials for Mayors

The Ash Center sat down with HKS Senior Lecturer Jorrit de Jong, an Ash Center resident faculty member and the faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. The Initiative has been at the forefront of training mayors in management and leadership techniques since its establishment four years ago. De Jong has led numerous seminars for mayors with leading public health and crisis response experts from Harvard and around the country since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year and recently, the initiative published a compendium that De Jong and his colleague Gaylen Moore edited titled COVID-19 Crisis Leadership Essentials for Mayors

Ash: Given your work with mayors throughout the U.S. and around the world, how would you assess the performance of mayors and other city leaders during the pandemic?  

De Jong: Mayors have been on the frontline of the pandemic, the economic fallout and the civil unrest over racial justice. Under normal circumstances, mayors have a tough job, as they are closest to the people and are held accountable for things beyond their control. This crisis has been an ultimate test of leadership to mayors around the world. I have been extremely impressed by their resolve, resourcefulness and resilience. Of course, mayors did not always get it right in taking action to prevent the disease from spreading and coordinating the response, but in many cases, they acted faster, and more boldly than higher level governments.    

Ash: Do you think that mayors and city governments were prepared for the leadership challenges that the COVID pandemic has imposed?   

De Jong: Mayors are generally prepared for the typical emergencies like extreme weather, shootings, etc. Nobody was prepared for a multilayered crisis like this.   

Jorrit de Jong looks at a wall of screens, each screen with an image of a mayor participating in a session
de Jong presents to mayors from across the country during the first session of the COVID-19 Local Response Initiative

Ash: Why do you think we’ve seen so many political clashes in the U.S. between mayors advocating for stricter public health measures, such as mask mandates, while some state and federal officials have at times been more reluctant to impose such measures?  

De Jong: Mayors are much closer to the realities on the ground and are more immediately confronted with the consequences of inadequate action. When mayors saw that curves in their cities did not flatten quickly enough, they started looking for additional measures, like mask mandates, and tracing programs, etc.   

Ash: How have some of the city leaders with whom you have worked managed to balance the public health imperatives of stay at home orders and mandated business closures with the economic toll that such measures have taken?   

De Jong: Mayors have been creative in many ways: closing roads to create outside seating space for restaurants, hiring unemployed people to work as contact tracers, using schools for food distribution and so on. But the fact is that a lot of business have had to close and may not comeback. As a society we are still grappling with the very difficult trade-offs. The hope is that we don’t have to choose between saving lives and saving livelihoods, but we need an enormous amount of innovation make that so.     

Ash: What are some of the lessons learned that you think mayors and other city leaders should internalize from responding to the pandemic and planning for the recovery? 

De Jong: Some of the things we counseled mayors on were speaking the truth, embracing data, and relying on science. There is a lot of disinformation out there, and if you want people to comply, you need to earn their trust by communicating authentically and transparently and share the facts even if they are not what people want to hear.  

We also encouraged them to engage other sectors and the community in problem solving. Nobody can solve the problems we have alone -- and we are in it together. Help may also come from unexpected places, so look around you and reach out to other sectors. Finally, we encouraged everyone to take care of themselves. This crisis is a marathon and not a sprint. You can only be an effective leader if you are pacing yourself and not burn out in the first round.