Ohio Gov. DeWine’s COVID-19 Response is a Textbook Case of Leadership

The strength of the United States’ response to the Coronavirus pandemic will likely be a subject of debate among political and public health experts for years to come. Did we fail to act soon enough? Did we reopen too quickly? Did we send a strong enough message for people to stay at home? Were the right preparations in place? Who were the political and business winners and who were the losers? History will be the judge of many of those answers. Yet when the history is written about Coronavirus in the United States, it will honor the heroes of the pandemic. The list will certainly include frontline workers, doctors, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as a number of state governors who stepped up and lead their states successfully through the crisis. Among them will be Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.

DeWine has been praised internationally for his quick and strong work on the pandemic response, shutting down schools and closing bars and restaurants while cases in the state could still be counted on one hand. And his efforts have paid off, with Ohio far curbing initial estimates for cases and deaths and likely being one of the first highly populous states meeting the requirements to reopen its economy in May.

This doesn’t come as any surprise to me. I’ve had the honor of knowing the Governor for four years and serving as an intern and field coordinator for his gubernatorial campaign in 2018. To me and all who’ve known and worked with him, we have known about DeWine’s compassion and leadership ability, and are glad that the governor is receiving the recognition he deserves. But even as someone who has believed in DeWine for years, his response to this crisis is a new high in his demonstration of leadership capabilities.

Since leaving the political world, I’ve focused my interests on organizational leadership. I’ve taken classes and read in depth about what an effective leader is and the best practices and approaches to leading organizations. And I’ve watched closely as many of these leadership concepts have been perfectly personified by Governor DeWine. It is clear to me that DeWine has used several principles of good leadership that has made his coronavirus response a textbook case in how to lead.

Building Strong Teams

Anyone who has been a regular viewer of DeWine’s daily press conferences knows that the governor is hardly attempting to tackle this challenge alone. For as much praise as DeWine has been getting on a national stage, Ohioans are equally celebrating the work of Dr. Amy Acton, the Director of the Ohio Department of Health. Acton gives daily medical updates, walking Ohioans through the numbers and what they mean and telling them what they can expect from a medical standpoint. Acton was the last appointee of DeWine’s cabinet; not because the role wasn’t important to DeWine, but rather the opposite, he wanted to be absolutely sure he found the right person for the job.

Also joining DeWine and Acton at the daily press briefings is Lt. Governor Jon Husted. DeWine tapped Husted, who has a background in economic development and previously served as Ohio Secretary of State (who works directly with small businesses in Ohio) to manage the economic response. Additionally, DeWine has been working closely with carefully assembled teams of doctors and business owners to manage both fronts of the pandemic fallout. While he is certainly working overtime, he has shown an ability to put the right people in place and delegate work effectively. DeWine realizes he’s not the expert. He’s joked about doing poorly in middle school science and despite his extensive resume, doesn’t have bone fide economic chops. Instead, he’s recognized his weak spots and has listened to his experts, learning as much as he can, and then doing what he is skilled at, making thoughtful decisions, executing them, and communicating them compassionately.

He is also one to share credit. I’ve yet to see an interview with the Governor in which he does not recognize Acton and Husted by name, never taking the credit for himself, but emphasizing that his role is only part of the greater team effort, an admission that is sometimes rare for those in executive roles.

Exercising Humility

If you stick around long enough through DeWine’s daily press conferences to get to the Q&A portion with reporters, it isn’t that uncommon for DeWine to answer, “I’m not sure, but I’ll get back with you.” While that might sound surprising, having the humility to say you do not have all the answers and not pretending that you do is a crucial leadership skill (imagine seeing this from the President at a White House Press Briefing!). Instead of trying to muster an answer, DeWine does what he says — he goes back and finds out. At the next day’s conference, you are sure to hear him address the previous day’s question with the best information he’s been able to gather by talking to the best people he can find.

Confronting Brutal Facts

In his classic book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the necessity that great leaders confront “brutal facts” facing their organizations, not trying to sugarcoat them, ignore them, or try to find a way around them, but rather how they will confront them head on. Collins also discusses in length the Stockdale Paradox. The paradox basically states that in order to be successful in the midst of crisis, a leader must confront the brutal facts of reality, while at the same time never losing faith of succeeding in the end.

DeWine has personified this idea almost flawlessly. He has been noted for being brutally honest with Ohioans about the often-uncomfortable facts of the pandemic, committing to telling Ohioans “what we know when we know it.”

And he doesn’t offer false hope. Weeks ago, when the President teased an Easter reopening of the country, DeWine made it clear that that was not a reality for Ohio. And when the President suggested that it would be his decision as to when to open the economy, DeWine respectfully reiterated that he would be making that decision. And he’s been clear that when things do open up, daily life will not be what it was before until there is a vaccine (likely a year away), a timeline longer, yet more realistic, than others have been willing to admit to.

At the same time, not a press conference has gone by that the Governor has not reiterated that we will get through this. Every day he reminds Ohioans that while this is today’s reality, the pandemic will not go on forever and Ohio’s health, both physically and economically, will return. He keeps Ohioans looking forward to the day that people can return to living the lives they once knew, while not offering any promises on a timeline.

Deep Passion

Anyone who has known Mike DeWine has already known about his deep passion for the State of Ohioans. Nowhere has that passion been on display more than during this pandemic. Deep and palpable passion from the executive is one of the crucial elements of strong leaders that inspire their followers.

This passion and empathy for Ohioans has been on display throughout the pandemic but was most notable for during a couple of distinct occasions. The first was a few weeks back when DeWine held an emergency Sunday press conference (he usually takes Sundays off) to directly appeal to the FDA to approve a new mask decontamination system from Ohio science and technology development company Battelle. After initial assurance that the system would be approved, the FDA limited the system’s capacity. In a stern press conference, DeWine showed that he wasn’t playing around and strongly and publicly urged the FDA to approve the system in full. To anyone watching, both the frustration and the passion that this system must be approved to save lives, was palpable. The FDA offered approval that evening.

A second instance came this past week when a reporter asked DeWine about the delay in unemployment checks to some who have filed for benefits in the past few weeks. Visibly shaken and disturbed by this news, DeWine displayed passion by reiterating how important it is to him that those newly unemployed be taken care of and promised to take action.

DeWine’s sternness in these instances shows how much he truly cares about those he serves and the resolve he has to do all he can to minimize the pain felt by Ohioans.

Personifying Change

From the moment that he began announcing changes Ohioans would have to make in their daily life, DeWine walked the walk, leading by example and personifying the change he preached, a key attribute for executives leading change initiatives. While New York mayor Bill DeBlasio went to an empty YMCA to work out, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot got her hair done, DeWine took his own recommendations to heart, only appearing on the grounds of his farm in Cedarville when not at his office in Columbus.

DeWine quickly adopted social distancing at his daily press conferences, a move that the White House still has not taken, not shaking hands, offering three different podiums for himself, Acton, and Husted; and keeping the media in a large open atrium where they can spread out, answering their questions remotely. A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on each podium. He’s also shared the food he’s picked up for takeout and spoken about the Zoom calls he’s had with his expansive family in lieu of being together.

DeWine has also been very clear that when the state does reopen, life will not be the same for Ohioans, and people throughout the globe. Major changes to daily life will have to take place, perhaps most notably the “strong, strong” recommendation that Ohioans wear masks in public. DeWine can be seen wearing his own homemade mask as he walks to and from the podium each day, a move that even those governors who’ve ordered the wearing of masks have not publicly taken.

While I could go on in the leadership qualities he has portrayed, it is clear that Ohio’s Governor DeWine has been the premier leader in the United States coronavirus response. He has assembled strong teams, shared credit, exercised humility, confronted facts while offering hope, shown deep passion and empathy, and personified the change he’s preached. And the results have beaten anyone’s expectations. DeWine’s personification of the leadership qualities that are preached and taught make him a textbook case of excellent leadership that should be studied for years to come.

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