What business leaders can learn from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

"In a time where we are more distant, Cuomo has made us feel closer together."

Andrew Cuomo’s briefings during this unprecedented crisis are being hailed for their ‘wisdom and competence’ by the likes of former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, and TV presenter John Oliver.

The New York governor already had a reputation for forthright speaking, but he has won fulsome praise in recent weeks for also showing a reassuring tone during his regular briefings, delivering facts in a way that his audience can digest, relate to, and understand. Even fellow Brit-in-America John Oliver, who is not Cuomo’s biggest fan, found time to praise him [link here]. Cuomo is certainly not flawless and he can be a divisive figure but the last few weeks have seen him deal with an unpredictable situation with vigor.

He does not shy away from difficult topics, and he addresses the psychological fall out of the current crisis, too, including the emotional impact that isolation is having on individuals and on families.

In fact, Cuomo is showcasing modern day leadership lessons at a time when business leaders sorely need them, given how many are faced with the task of making difficult decisions right now. Here are some takeaways we can learn from this new role model:

1.    Be proactive – Cuomo has been proactive and energetic from day one, and as a result has become the go-to leader that audiences flock to for insight and direction at this difficult time. Where other leaders shied away, Cuomo has stepped up to proactively address the situation at a time when the public needed clear direction and support.

2.    Be measured – Cuomo does not make snap judgments. He leans into expertise, leveraging fact and divulging detail as the basis of his strategy and thinking. Even as he looks ahead to re-opening parts of the state, it is done so in a considered, measured way. As a result, he has gained trust, even from skeptics.

3.    Show empathy and emotion – At the same time, Cuomo is using empathy to inject emotion into these facts and details in order to help a wider audience understand the situation and to galvanize collective action. Whether through formal briefings, or more informal conversations with his brother, Chris, or appearances on podcasts, like The Daily, Cuomo has used the media tools at his disposal to connect on an emotional level with different audiences to get his message across.

4.    Have a holistic approach – The New York Governor is considering the full impact of this crisis and addressing each part in a measured way, despite the complexity. The Governor was one of the first to address the mental-health side of the crisis whilst many were still grappling with the more obvious impacts. Similarly businesses must act as true partners with their clients and customers, always considering the bigger picture, rather than just the current, short-term situation.

5.    Generate positivity and look ahead – Whilst the above could point to a leader focused solely the severity of the here and now, Cuomo is also inspirational in his approach in that he successfully fosters a sense that we will get through this, together. He looks ahead to a brighter future, and the longer-term impact, inviting his audience to collaborate and to come on the journey with him, however difficult. This is the sign of true leadership, leading and guiding the collective through a difficult time, sharing his strategy and decisions and working with people rather than just working for people. 

In short, Cuomo shows how important it is for a leader to deliver clear, factual communications, whilst also showing empathy and taking ownership of responsibility when appropriate, whilst remaining relatable, ‘human’ and grateful for those helping in the collective effort to overcome this crisis. 

These unprecedented times call for a new rulebook for modern leadership. We have seen, and will no doubt continue to see many business heads needing to take some unpopular and deeply upsetting decisions, whether cutting headcounts, reducing pay or shuttering offices. Cuomo recognizes the importance of transparency and trust as well as simplicity in his messaging in a world in which we are bombarded with conflicting information.

Creativity and lateral thinking is needed, too, of course. Whether it’s manufacturers suddenly making face masks or hand sanitizer, or adapting ventilators so that they can provide air to more than one patient, there is a need for collaboration and cross-disciplinary action. Business leaders who take diverse teams with them will be more likely to generate this result. 

Times have changed significantly already. Before COVID-19, CEOs and other executives were focused on the likes of innovation, revenue, and market share. Today, many of these leaders must instead make rapid decisions about controlling costs and ensuring cash flow, frequently in the face of previously unforeseen roadblocks, and all while keeping their customers and consumers front of mind. This is done whilst their teams are navigating working remotely in a variety of very difficult circumstances. 

But Cuomo shows us that its possible to flex leadership muscles quickly and effectively even when the learning curve is steep and unchartered. In a time where we are more distant, Cuomo has made us feel closer together. Hope and determination is vital in what will be the ultimate leadership challenge for many, as our lives change in the blink of an eye. We can see through his example why empathy should be central in a company’s corporate culture: It can be contagious, in a good way.

James Rowe is the managing director of adam&eve New York. 

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