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President Obama’s Advice for Leaders in Crisis

The former president reminds leaders to, first and foremost, tell the truth.

Figuring out how the coronavirus spreads and how your business should respond is incredibly complex. But when it comes to responding to the current crisis, President Obama’s basic advice for leaders is simple: tell the truth. 

The former president spoke to leaders from 300 municipalities on Thursday at a virtual gathering organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies. His message, which he also shared via Twitter, was straightforward but powerful: 

Speak the truth. Speak it clearly. Speak it with compassion. Speak it with empathy for what folks are going through. The biggest mistake any [of] us can make in these situations is to misinform, particularly when we’re requiring people to make sacrifices and take actions that might not be their natural inclination.  

These remarks can obviously be interpreted as a not-so-subtle dig at President Trump, who has widely been accused of spreading misinformation about the crisis. “The former president’s words on Thursday coincided with Trump contradicting experts, who say the need for widespread testing is critical before the country can begin reopening,” noted the Washington Post, for instance. 

Sugarcoating the truth helps no one. 

The former President’s remarks don’t apply just to politics. They’re also essential advice for anyone leading through dark times, including entrepreneurs. Few bosses will be able to avoid making tough decisions and extraordinary demands of their workforce in the current crisis. The way to do that humanely isn’t to sugarcoat the truth or put off speaking it for as long as possible. It’s to respect people enough to give it to them straight. 

If you doubt this wisdom, just look at how New York governor Andrew Cuomo has won rave reviews (as well as the unexpected status of the internet’s newest crush) for his unvarnished but human press conferences. Then contrast that with the confusion the current administration has sown with its wild seesawing between unwarranted optimism and chastened seriousness. 

Let both of these real-world examples and President Obama serve as a reminder that, while the temptation to keep spirits up with optimistic spin may be high, you’ll actually earn more trust — as well as a more coordinated response — from your team if you tell them the truth (though there’s no need to be a jerk when delivering bad news, either). 

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