Lu Fareed is a PhD candidate conducting research into local government leadership, using the Covid pandemic as a case study. He interviewed me for his research. The transcription of the interview follows (thank you, everyone at Seaside):
Crisis Leadership Interview Questions
How long have you been in this position (City manager)?
I started in the profession in 1988. My first 11 years were in a variety of assistant roles. Since 2001, I've been a chief administrative officer for a county or municipality. I was City Manager of Seaside from January of 2016 to September of 2021.
How did you go about collecting and processing information during the COVID-19 crisis?
When I was City Administrator of Davenport, Iowa, I was enrolled in Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a program that trains leaders among various disciplines to understand and be responsive to landscape scale disasters; natural disasters, terrorism, pandemics … things like that. Seriously consequential events, so, I had that experience, and I had the experience of working for Davenport, which is the largest city in the nation that does not have structural flood protection, so it floods regularly. And as part of that experience, we also went down to Mississippi in the wake of Katrina to do emergency work there.
So how I went about collecting and processing information was significantly impacted by what I learned in all that previous experience, which is this; you're never going to get the right story at the start. At the start, there's always going to be a difference between the things you think you know and the actual truth on the ground. So, we had a very robust and expansive information collection process. That strategy also was driven by, very early on it was apparent we had a President who was not able to understand the magnitude of the situation and had no real capacity for governance or even an understanding of how governance works. So … you are on your own. I was searching for information that would originally come from the CDC or the World Health Organization. I read medical journals to get information, got information from the County Health Officer and found a lot of excellent information coming from other nations. Given the global impact of this, its global origins, and our President’s inability to grasp what was happening, there was better information available from nontraditional sources. Early on, we instituted daily meetings at the city leadership level and would compare and contrast the information that was available, to chart the best course.
How did you communicate information that led to actions that made sense and gave meaning to events?
We had a lot of zoom meetings and face to face meetings in our largest spaces with people spread out as we were developing strategies. Those strategies and the ideas behind them were communicated in a periodic newsletter of sorts called the “Manifest”. The Manifest was something I started when I began in Seaside and people liked it because it told a cohesive (if at times not coherent) story. It was anti-bureaucratic, and people liked it. It became clear that I needed to communicate at scale and in writing to people across the organization and across the community, so I ramped up the Manifest so people could read almost in real-time the issues we were facing, the information we had and what our response was. For better and for worse.
How did you communicate the crisis plan to your organization in a manner they could understand and helped reduce stress, fear, and anxiety?
The Manifest did that, in a lot of ways. We also had an excellent HR Director, Roberta Greathouse, who was outstanding at messaging and making sure the organization had the latest information. That was difficult for us because the latest information was constantly changing and something you thought you knew yesterday … you would wake up and what you thought you knew was right you would find out was wrong. To deal with that constant uncertainty, we had to constantly revisit what the current state of information was and tell people; look, we're telling you everything we know - we are not withholding anything, but there is just a whole lot of information we didn't know. So … we communicated relentlessly, met daily as a management team, and communicated daily at a minimum, often hourly.
Decision Making & Coordination
How did you make well-informed decisions that provided a clear course of action during the pandemic?
We had very early discussions about what our mission was. It became clear this was a global pandemic. We did research on other pandemics, figuring out there were going to be millions of people who were going to die, and we might be one of them, so … what’s our mission? Our mission was to continue our services for as long as possible. We said ok, how do we do that? We do that by making every effort we can, every responsible effort we can, to ensure that our employees are safe, and their families are safe. We can't deliver services if we are unavailable. Suppose we die. Who's going to deliver services? I was 2,000 miles away from my wife and children, and honestly, I didn't know if I would ever see them again.
How did you analyze, plan and communicate with your stakeholders?
We did a lot of zooming. A lot of outdoor face-to-face meetings. One of the very good things about Seaside was that we could have outdoor operations, we could effectively move all of our operations outdoors and split people up. We reinforced rigorously that people can't be close together. Employees can't be in the same vehicles … we needed to split up our fire department, we disconnected our HVAC systems and opened windows. We analyzed, planned and communicated in safe spaces – often outside - and did so at a tempo that was necessitated by the circumstances.
How did you coordinate and collaborate with partners during the COVID 19 pandemic?
The city managers of the region set up weekly zoom meetings. There is a group of city managers around the central coast, and we would normally have monthly lunch meetings. It just so happened it was my turn to be chairperson of that group a month before the pandemic hit, so we had one lunch meeting and then, obviously, we couldn't get together, face to face, at restaurants like we used to. So, we did it weekly via zoom, and I was the guy who had to do that. Just my luck.
How did you determine what information needed to be communicated to people in your organization that presented a factual narrative of the crisis?
Excellent question. The best way to do that was we would listen to people's fears. People would express their fears in a variety of ways. Some will be upfront about it, some would be sort of curious about it. But we will listen to people's fears. We would try to think through those fears and try to address them.
People thought I was crazy at some points, but I was focused on relieving people’s fears. Because they can’t complete the mission if they are afraid. Here’s an example; very early on, when it wasn't exactly clear how the disease was communicable from one person to the next and hand sanitizer was becoming scarce.
One of the things I learned, both at the Harvard thing and though 13 Mississippi river floods (which are not small events) is you need to get stuff before it becomes impossible to get. People are going to be wanting supplies that will go away tomorrow, so get them today. Very early on I told our Public Works Director to buy as much isopropyl alcohol as he could get. He asked me what does “as much as he could get” mean? I said, “does it come in 55 gallon drums”? He said it did. I told him to get three 55 gallon drums. So we bought some spray bottles, and made our own hand sanitizer. We never ran out. Same thing with masks. We got as many as we could lay our hands on, and I bought 300 t-shirts to fashion into masks if we ever got desperate.
Basically, we listened to people’s fears and addressed them with safety measures and protocols.
9. How did you show empathy and care for your people in your organization that instilled hope?
I was there alone, so in some sense, they were my family. I recognized that, and I think they recognized that – that I was there to care for them, and it was reciprocal.
Again, my prior experience in emergences was helpful. When I was at the Harvard thing, I had the great fortune to have dinner with Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard, who relieved Mike Brown in the wake of Katrina.
He told the story of how he took command of the Katrina relief effort. I was on the Mississippi coast a week or so after Katrina happened; it was like transporting yourself to a third-world country, like a third-world country at war. I went to the coast of Bay St Louis, Mississippi, where the hurricane hit; our job was to restore water service there. And we're just 14 people from Davenport, Iowa, with our tools and supplies that we had to bring to go there. And, and it was like a war zone. It was crazy.
So, to go back to your question, Thad Alen was describing how he took command, and he said, we need an all-hands meeting, and they were like, Admiral, how are we going to have an all-hands meeting? He said, find me biggest building we have. So they found an aircraft hangar and get everyone in there and the Admiral gets up on a desk and says in his deep booming Admiral voice – this has always stuck with me – my standing order is everyone treats everyone you come in contact with like they're a member of your family. Then, he explains, I'm telling you that, so if anyone tells you otherwise, you tell them, well … they don't have a problem with you, they have a problem with me, Commandant Allen, commander of this operation.
So, this sense of, we are a family, was meaningful. We are family, we are kindred, we are in this together.
One of my goals, and I made this really clear early on, was that one of my goals is that nobody catches COVID while on the job. Nobody. And that's hard to do when you have some of our jobs, where you have to engage with people who have COVID. So, we instituted many different protocols to meet that goal, and then I just said, look, nobody needs to worry about their job, okay? We're going to make sure you’re safe. And you can care for your family. Don’t worry about your paycheck, or your sick leave. We had very liberal COVID leave. If you caught COVID someplace else, stay home. Don’t worry about using sick leave. Don’t worry about your next paycheck. Stay home. Take care of yourself. Get better. Now, if push comes to shove, and the bodies start piling up, we need to call people in. We’re all public sector employees and we’re going to do what the public needs us to do. But otherwise, until that happens, everyone take care of themselves.
10. How did you provide a sense of direction and hope to reduce fear and anxiety in your organization?
We made safety apparent to our workers. We had this conversation about … don’t worry, the bubonic plaque and the Spanish Flu didn’t kill everyone. We’ll stay safe until the scientists figure this out. We are the nation that invented the polio vaccine, and that was 50 years ago. We're going to figure this out, and we just have to stay safe as we can be while delivering services our community needs. We'll move back together once they figure it out, and things will be fine. That was our story.
11. How did you take personal responsibility as a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic?
In a variety of ways. I was responsible for leading the organization. I always say the first lesson of leadership is to go to the problem. Don’t let someone describe the problem to you. Go to the problem and see it yourself. So, my part of the problem was how to keep the organization delivering services. I'm not an epidemiologist. I wasn't the one who was going to create the vaccine. My job in this whole thing was to keep an organization together so that it could deliver services to a very challenged community. Seaside was one of the more resourced-challenge communities in the region. I cut my pay because we were making decisions about laying people off and we needed to cut expenses. Other employees saw that and voluntarily cut their pay too. All of our department heads, all of our unions, all of them voluntarily cut their pay by at least 10%, so we could keep more people employed and deliver needed services to the community. The City started providing food as a basic necessity for the community. We would have a food distribution day, and there would be hundreds of people showing up to get food. The hundreds of thousands of dollars we saved in employee compensation allowed us to feed thousands and thousands of families.
I also showed up every day. Literally, every single day. I only took Thanksgiving Day off. My family was 2,000 miles away, and I was going a little crazy, by then. I was alone. My family was 2,000 miles away, and I hadn't seen anyone in my family for almost a year. It was terrible, just terrible. So I drove to Yosemite, and I made myself a turkey sandwich and instead of instead of mashed potatoes, I had chips. I socially distanced in the wilderness of Yosemite for a day, which was actually very restorative. I had to shelter in place. So, I did it in Yosemite. Other than that, I showed up every single day and never asked an employee to do something I wouldn't do. And I never skirted a rule. People would say, “Craig, you've not seen your family for months. You can leave; you could drive your car to Iowa and come back, and nobody would know, and we won't tell.” Stuff like that. Well, leaders can’t skirt rules. If I'm asking other people to follow rules so we’re as safe as we can be, I have to follow the same rules. It was terrible, but that was the deal.
12. How did you take ownership for the actions and agreed upon results regardless of the outcome?
The way leaders do it. You just accept the responsibility that you have to do your best and take the blame when things go wrong. As an example, we cut our budget a little too much, and we ended up with more fund balance than we started with – so we restored employee’s pay.
It’s not just that you can’t blame others for when things don't go right, you have to get beyond the concept of blame. This is a learning environment. We don’t have perfect information, and if people worry that they're going to be held responsible for making a mistake in a situation without perfect information, we’re not going to be able to move forward. It was an unprecedented experience for almost everyone, so you're not going to get the discussion necessary to get to an optimal result if people are afraid to contribute or afraid that you're going to blame them; you're just not going to get any progress. So that means, as a leader, you have to say, if something goes wrong, it's on me. And people get that. People who accept responsibility for situations that aren't their fault, gain the respect and goodwill of others.
13. How did you feel about being accountable for the results of your actions in an event that had a high degree of threat to the personal health and safety of employees?
This will be the short answer; I was totally fine with it. Being accountable is the job of a city manager. That how I describe it; anything that goes wrong in the city, is my fault. Anything that goes right, is because we have a great staff. Once you get past that understanding of the job, the possibilities for progress are exponential.
14. How did you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your response to the COVID-19?
Primarily, by establishing some metrics, and one of the internal metrics was nobody catches Covid at work. We weren’t perfect on that one. We did have one person catch Covid at work because they violated the protocol of not being in a vehicle together. So, there were some consequences for that; coaching consequences. But other than that one instance, nobody got COVID at work. That's a good thing, given our organization’s work where you literally have firefighters and police officers assisting people who have Covid.
We had external metrics too. The early metrics of how many people have it, and what's the hospitalization rate; we wanted to be better than average, on those metrics. Then, after the vaccine, we wanted to be better than average on vaccination rates, which is hard in a multicultural community like Seaside. We have big cohorts of the population who are skeptical and / or absolutely frightened of government. So, we worked hard on creating systems to build trust. People saw that and responded positively, against the backdrop of a federal government that was completely ill-equipped given a President with no prior government experience at the time.
Even I didn't trust the federal government at the time, so we would do corollary things in order to build trust and faith in the community. City staff were fantastic. Our Assistant City Manager Leslie Milton set up a volunteer mask production and distribution program. Our firefighters, police officers and public works employees all stepped up to do new tasks, or in new ways. Our Recreation Director Dan Meewis and his department switched from the fun and games of recreation to the necessity of feeding the community. We’d have hundreds of families, lines of cars up and down the street getting food, and when the cars stopped at the delivery point, you’d see the families wearing the masks that Leslie’s program created, which was great. It was evident that people trusted the City and relied upon us to help them get through the pandemic. When you are literally feeding people, they tend to trust you. So, after the vaccine was created, we had built enough trust that people were lining up to be vaccinated by our firefighters.
15. How did the COVID-19 pandemic, help you learn more about yourself as a leader?
I think the most important thing was to recognize the value of saying … you don't know. To be honest about the things you don't know. That is sometimes hard for people in positions of authority and responsibility because somehow, they think that they have to invent an answer. Or they have to be the smartest person in the room. That’s just not the case. I don't have to be the smartest person in any room. I have to make sure that there are smart people in the room, and every contributing voice gets heard, particularly when it’s a contradictory voice.
Honestly, that didn't originate from my own self-awareness. That was drilled into me at Harvard's national preparedness leadership program, because you go through all these scenarios - why did the Challenger blow up?, why was Katrina such a disaster?, and all these other scenarios - and when you track back through the decision-making afterwards … there were people who knew launching the Challenger at that temperature was an extreme risk, there were people who knew how exposed New Orleans was to a catastrophic failure of infrastructure. But the people in charge didn't want to appear as if they couldn't launch the rocket, or handle a hurricane. So, you have to factor that in and set up reward structures for employees telling leadership what they don't want to hear.
Leadership is really being able to disappoint people at a rate that's sustainable to solving the problem the organization or community faces. By that I mean you have to tell people that you are not here to wave some magic wand of your leadership presence and charismatic good looks -because that’s certainly not going to work for me - to solve their problems for them. Only they can solve their problems, and it usually involves the pain of learning that what they did in the past was not, and is not, adequate. Or, often, not even focused on the real problem. Leaders don’t and can’t know everything, but I do I know this; if everyone is contributing their best efforts and we’re open to being adaptive to the problem as it is rather than how we’d like it to be, we can succeed as a team.
16. How has your experience from the COVID-19 crisis prepared you for future crises?
That’s hard to say. We tend to respond to something through what’s called recognition primed decision making. Experienced people have something like a Rolodex in their head. One of the better examples of this are emergency room doctors. Somebody shows up in the emergency room and the doctors assess their symptoms and spin through the Rolodex of experience in their heads and begin treatment by picking the Rolodex card that is closest to how the symptoms are representing. It is highly efficient decision making and it works most of the time.
But leaders have to recognize there is no perfect card for what is happening right now. There might be a card for what you think is happening right now. And there might be cards for what may be close to what is happening right now. But there's no card for what is actually happening right now. That card only gets created after the fact, through retrospect. So, the thing that the pandemic prepared me most for is to realize that we need to work together in order to understand what is actually happening, have honest conversations about things we don’t know, and prepare a range of options to adaptively respond, pending new information.
17. How did you develop trust and care for people as the crisis threatened the organization?
First off, you can't start when the crisis starts. You start on your first day. You make it eminently clear to everyone that you are concerned about their good fortune. You do all the basic stuff - I always parked in the last parking space, so everyone could park closer to City Hall than me. You bring doughnuts every now and then, and eat the one remaining after everyone picks theirs. You make sure employees get their raises before you. You do all the other very basic leadership stuff to put people who work for you first.
You do all that so you're not pivoting during a crisis, you're just reinforcing the trust that already exists. Again, very early on, we had to look at what our spend rate was, and what our expected revenue was. A few people had to leave, because our revenue was tanking. I cut my salary without fanfare, but it got noticed, and every other employee followed. The people who remained saw that we were in it, together. They saw that they were going to be well cared for, and that their safety was important to me and the leadership team.
18. How did you make decisions that focused on the safety, security, and health of the people in your organization?
Again, we started with a discussion about what our mission was. Then we said ok, our mission doesn't complete itself. We, the employees, complete the mission, and if the mission is as important as it is, it is just basic that we had to take good care of our employees. Our mission significantly expanded through the crisis. In addition to providing water, building inspection services, police and fire services, recreation and park services - basics of local life - we went beyond that to start delivering food in massive quantities, and delivering public health services including vaccinations. I got my shot in the arm by the Seaside firefighter. We became more than we were when we started. So, once it became clear that we had to step up to serve the community in new ways, it also became clear that we had to protect the people who are stepping up. I don’t use football metaphors often, but you don't send people onto the football field without a helmet and pads. Otherwise, that’s rugby. We were operating on an expanded and more dangerous playing field, and we had to protect our people. That simple.
19. How did you demonstrate courage during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I shut up when it was good not to pretend I knew things.
There's the physical courage of showing up, when you could leave. My wife and family were 2,000 miles away. I should be with her. That’s a normal thing to think about. But, for better or worse, that wasn’t the deal. The deal I struck when I entered this profession is my job is to be the chief administrative official for an organization that employs heroes – for people who do frontline public safety work. When someone calls 911, we are the ones who come running to help you. Literally, running. So, if I can't support them, by being here, that is a fraud.
So, I was there every day (except for Thanksgiving). I put others’ good fortune ahead of mine. I don’t know if you noticed this, but once the vaccine was available, you saw government elected officials getting the vaccine first. They had this bullshit line about them needing to get the vaccine first because they were important to the continuity of services. You know who is important for society and the continuity of services? It’s not some state assembly member. It’s police officers, firefighters, teachers and public works employees. It’s reporters and nurses and the people who bag your groceries. Those are the important people. I waited in line and got my shot after the frontline employees got theirs. Whether that's leadership or stupidity, I guess, is for someone else to decide.