Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic: “The Pendulum Effect”
Both President Trump and Democratic governors have mishandled the pandemic.
Like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a real-time case study in leadership best (and worst) practices. Consequently, leaders at all levels have an opportunity to learn valuable lessons during this global crisis to better prepare themselves for future crises.
What follows is the third in a series of articles highlighting those leadership lessons. The first article focused on the importance of accurately identifying the three types of problems leaders face. My second one was a follow-up piece that examined the serious consequences created by leaders when they misidentify problem type and subsequently create more (and potentially worse) problems with their “solution(s).” This third entry will examine “The Pendulum Effect” — a leadership trap many governors fell into in response to the Trump administration’s lack of initial action on the pandemic.
“The Pendulum Effect”
Dictionary.com defines “The Pendulum Effect” as follows:
1. Also called pendulum law. Physics. A law discovered by Galileo in 1602, that describes the regular, swinging motion of a pendulum by the action of gravity and acquired momentum.
2. The theory that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.
In my world of organizational and leadership consulting, I deal with the latter definition on a regular basis. Simply put, it is the tendency for individual leaders or entire organizations to engage in wild behavioral or procedural swings between opposites. For example:
- An organization’s travel policies, including expense reporting and reimbursement, is fairly straightforward and loosely controlled, trusting employees to conduct their travel and complete their expense reports in a timely and honest fashion. However, after an internal audit reveals numerous instances of questionable travel bookings and expenses, missing receipts, and high late-completion rates, the organization rolls out a complicated and punitive process that requires detailed documentation, timely completion, and managerial oversight.
- A manager has been taking a hands-off approach to leading his or her team. However, the team has been under-performing, so the department’s director pressures the manager to fix it…or else! Consequently, the manager becomes a draconian micro-manager, overseeing every task and minute detail, while threatening his or her reports with negative consequences if they don’t step up their game.
These are just two examples of “The Pendulum Effect” in action. I’ve seen countless others in my almost 30 years of working with private-sector organizations ranging from small Silicon Valley startups to Fortune 100 companies.
But I’ve unquestionably encountered this phenomenon more often in my government clients, whether it be a small local government or one of the large federal agencies I’ve worked with over the years (CDC, DOE, EPA). I think it’s more common in government because of our two-party system and the extreme swings to the left or right that naturally occur based on which party has power at the moment. And it’s definitely become more prevalent in the past few years, as the nation has become more politically polarized.
Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve witnessed “The Pendulum Effect” in our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Pendulum Effect” and the COVID-19 Pandemic
With the exception of President Trump’s most diehard supporters, people generally agree that his administration wasted critical time in responding to the seriousness of the pandemic. Yes, he instituted a few travel bans. But throughout much of January, February, and early March, the federal government’s response to COVID-19 was minimal (and that’s probably a generous word choice).
Cue the governors and “The Pendulum Effect.”
In response to the federal government’s inaction, governors (especially Democratic governors) swung to the opposite extreme and implemented strict government-mandated business and school closures, mass quarantines, travel restrictions, and a host of other far-ranging actions all designed to stop the short-term spread of the virus (“Flattening the Curve”). These governors took these actions without carefully considering how these “fixes” could create significant long-term unintended consequences to the economy and society as a whole.
I discussed these actions and their unintended consequences at length in my articles on “Identifying Problem Type” and “Fixes That Fail” — so I won’t rehash those points here. What I will say is there is growing concern that these actions may have been more extreme than necessary, given their potentially long-lasting negative effects on the country.
So, how could those governors have avoided “The Pendulum Effect?” By following the example of a character in a popular children’s story.
Using “The Goldilocks Principle” to Avoid “The Pendulum Effect”
T o help my clients avoid the extreme swings of “The Pendulum Effect,” I have them engage in an activity based on “The Goldilocks Principle.” If you remember the story, when Goldilocks visits the three bears’ house, she regularly encounters three choices. Those choices included bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds that represent two opposite extremes (porridge that is too hot or too cold, for example) and the perfect middle ground (the “just right” option).
Like the little blonde protagonist in that story, the leaders with whom I work often face decisions for which there are a variety of solutions along a continuum. At each end of this continuum are the extreme measures they could take. But in between those two points are a range of possible solutions — some of which are undoubtedly “just right.”
Using the pandemic as a case study, I’ll walk you through how I coach leaders to discover that “just right” solution by engaging in the following three-step activity:
1. I first make sure they have a clear, accurate understanding of the problem with which they are faced. That includes correctly identifying the type of problem BEFORE trying to solve it. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians were facing a complex Type III problem: Unclear Problem/Unclear Solution. (Again, please see my piece on “Identifying Problem Type” for more information on this critical first step.)
2. Next, I ask them to identify the two extreme approaches they could take to deal with their problem. This includes asking them to identify the potential unintended consequences of each approach — a concept I discussed in my “Fixes That Fail” article.) As I mentioned earlier, the federal vs. state responses to the pandemic clearly illustrate the two ends of the solution continuum, ranging from a laissez-faire approach on one side to all-encompassing government restrictions on the other.
3. Once I get them to see the two possible extreme actions, I walk them through a fairly standard decision-making/problem-solving exercise that identifies how they can best approach the problem — without swinging too far to either extreme (the “just right” solution). This includes setting goals and success criteria; generating alternatives; applying a numerical decision-making technique; selecting the best solution(s); and planning, implementing, and monitoring the solution(s).
This approach to the pandemic could have simultaneously addressed both the short- and long-term challenges facing our society, while avoiding “The Pendulum Effect.” And for those of you who argue that leaders didn’t have time to go through this process, let me suggest that they could have implemented a one- or even two-week lock-down and used that time to assemble a team of experts that could have developed a more effective strategic approach to addressing the health & healthcare, economic, and social & psychological aspects of the crisis.
A Final Thought
I wish I could say that “The Pendulum Effect” we are seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic is an aberration. Unfortunately, I think it’s simply the most visible (and potentially devastating) example of the dangers of the politically polarized democracy we now have. When politicians and citizens alike view members of the other party as enemies to defeat in a debate instead of partners in a dialogue to solve the challenges facing our nation, it is nearly impossible to avoid “The Pendulum Effect.”
And let’s face it, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. If President Trump or a Republican politician says or does something, Republicans support it and Democrats immediately conclude it must be wrong. Conversely, if Joe Biden or another Democratic leader says or does something, Democrats support it and Republicans immediately conclude it must be wrong.
But if we look at the pandemic through the lens of “The Pendulum Effect,” we rationally and neutrally can conclude that BOTH sides have made mistakes in their extreme approaches to the pandemic. In comparison to other world leaders, President Trump and Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. did too little, allowing the virus to get a foothold in the United States. But Democratic state politicians swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme and did too much, creating significant long-term damage to the economy and other social structures. At the very least, all of us should be able to concede that both sides have made mistakes in their approaches.
And if we can’t admit that due to our partisan political views, we are facing a much bigger threat than the pandemic. For while partisan politics may make for raucous, entertaining debates on television, radio, and social media, it doesn’t make for a sound democracy. As one of our greatest Presidents wisely observed: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”…especially if its destruction is being hastened by a partisan wrecking ball called “The Pendulum Effect.”