Share on Pinterest
California Gov. Gavin Newsom was criticized for attending a dinner inside a restaurant after advising the public to avoid indoor gatherings. Getty Images
  • The governor of California and the mayor of Austin, Texas, have been criticized for not following the COVID-19 guidelines they issued to the public.
  • Experts say when elected leaders disregard the rules, they can lose the public’s trust and encourage citizens to also break the rules.
  • If leaders feel a rule must be broken, then they should look at whether that rule needs to be changed, they say.

“Great leaders inspire greatness in others.” – Lolly Daskal, motivational speaker

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” – Warren Buffett, business owner

In this time of lockdowns, masking, and physical distancing, elected officials — and leaders of all types — are finding both these quotes to be true.

They’re also finding that in the era of COVID-19, the actions and sometimes missteps of leaders can amplify the public’s feeling of dismay, disappointment, and even dissuasion.

For social media influencers such as the Kardashians, the damage from pushing the boundaries of the pandemic rules can hurt a brand. That was evident with Kim Kardashian West’s birthday bash.

But when it comes to elected officials, particularly those tasked with setting and upholding the rules of the pandemic, the public reaction runs deeper and can, in some cases, damage their ability to lead in this crisis.

Michelle Weisenberg lives in Orange, California, and has long been a supporter of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Throughout the pandemic, she said, she’s appreciated and supported his decisions.

Then he went to a party at the famed French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. The party had more people in attendance than COVID-19 guidelines allowed.

“To be honest, my initial reaction when I heard was ‘WTF!,’ but I’m not sure you can print that,” Weisenberg, a mother of four who has closely followed pandemic rules, told Healthline.

“I thought: Why would you do this? Do you not understand you need to be above reproach? If you are going to be imposing restrictions then you, even more than anyone else, need to embrace them,” she said.

Which may be what some leaders such as Newsom and Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler — who flew on a private jet to a vacation in Cabo, Mexico, while imploring residents to stay at home — didn’t understand.

Leadership experts say that while politicians are as human as the rest of us, they need to hold themselves to a higher standard in times of crisis.

It’s not just to set an example but also to make their leadership decisions more palatable to the public.

Experts say leaders can help the public feel more comfortable in difficult times via their own actions.

“When some are (doing certain things) and some aren’t, people who see that feel deprived,” said Stephen Benning, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Las Vegas who also runs PEPlab, where he explores the psychophysiology of emotion and personality.

“When people feel relatively deprived compared to other people, their sense of injustice is magnified,” he told Healthline.

An elected official involved in setting guidelines can push that emotion to the forefront by not just ignoring a guideline but by pushing up against the limits of it, Benning said.

History, he said, has proven that leaders who stick to the rules in a time of crisis help the situation as a whole.

“Look at World War II,” he said. “That war was certainly a time in which everyone was deprived.”

In that time, when the public used ration books and was asked to do without, leaders stepped up.

Queen Elizabeth II of England saved rations to get materials for her wedding gown.

Leaders in the United States got their ration books stamped like everyone else.

“It’s called a ‘superordinate goal,’ when we are all working together to do something for all of us,” Benning said.

Actions such as going to a questionable party or traveling to a family event can have a long-lasting impact on how the public adopts measures that are necessary, said Larry Breen, chief commercial officer of NearForm. NearForm is a contact tracing system being used in countries around the world and in the United States.

“I won’t name names, but I’ve been a key advisor to a certain government somewhere in the world where rules were put in place to protect us,” Breen told Healthline. “Once a leader chose to pretty much ignore them, well, then, it got hard.”

If a leader, he said, claims they had to visit family when doing so is discouraged or not allowed, that leader has an obligation to examine those rules again.

“If their excuse is ‘well, but my family needed me,’ then the rules may need to be changed,” he said.

In other words, if it’s OK for the leader, it needs to be OK for everybody else.

When leaders don’t follow the rules, Breen said, it chips away at one of the most vital ingredients needed to turn the pandemic around: trust.

“Confusion is the biggest issue we have here, and unfortunately, everyone in the world cannot have all the information all the time,” he said.

That’s why, he said, we look to leaders. Leaders are given all the information, and the public needs to trust them to comb through it, talk to experts, and then share what must be done.

Seeing leaders then break those guidelines?

“It makes a mockery of the whole thing,” Breen said.

The loss of trust can lead the public to not want to do things like contact tracing and testing.

Breen points to two examples where leadership has stayed visibly united and all-in on following guidelines: Ireland and New Zealand.

“The Irish government, through this whole thing, all sides and all parties, have come together in public,” he said. “Sure, they’ve had rigorous debate, but in a controlled and sensible method.”

It’s similar to the parents of small children who put on a united front and hash out disagreements behind the scenes, Breen noted.

Elected leaders need to keep the same message and actions across the board.

“New Zealand has been the same,” he said. “And we’re seeing it’s working.”

Launching a contact tracing app takes public trust and input, and Breen said there are positive upticks in app usage in places where leadership is trusted.

In the United States, Breen said, he sees it in the northeastern portion of the country.

“Where we see leadership come together (and follow the guidelines themselves), we see confidence created and people ready to (do things like sign in to a contact tracing app),” he said.

Benning noted that since leaders are human, they may stray from what they should do.

“Being a leader is really hard work, and these are tricky times no matter who you are,” he said.

He points to Newson’s transgression as an example.

The California governor thought the French Laundry meal would be outside, Benning said, but it was moved indoors because of the weather. Newsom also thought there’d be fewer people in attendance.

“He had his obligation to his constituents and also to his social group,” Benning said. “And they were at war with each other.”

Adler, the Austin mayor who later apologized in a written statement for his Mexico trip, was trying to support his daughter, Benning said.

However, when it comes to community leaders, he said, particularly those implementing the guidelines, one must either step up and follow the rules or figure out how everyone can do what you feel you must do.

“That extends to anyone in positions of power because they do serve as role models to others,” he said.

His advice for community leaders? Be honest.

“Moments of empathy can help,” he said. “It may be helpful for leaders to be up front and honest. Explain what you did and how you fell short. It doesn’t mean people won’t disagree with you, and it doesn’t mean you’re not wrong. But it does make clear that you understand what you did and want to do better by all.”

Breen points out that the politicization of some of the guidelines in places such as the United States make this even more challenging.

Weisenberg said that’s a big reason she was so astounded when Newsom went to that dinner.

“He gave (those who oppose guidelines) ammunition,” she said.

“Here in Southern California, there are a lot of online groups discussing all this,” she said. “Now, every time, they throw ‘French Laundry’ in your face if you suggest we need the guidelines… It’s their reason now that they see themselves as right. How could they not have known that would be the case?”

Having the general public ignore or push against the leader’s guidance can create confusion, Breen said.

“Look at a football team,” he said. “If you didn’t have a coach giving clear instructions and the teammates all following them, the game would just be a big mess.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, is no game.

Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, PhD, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus advisory task force, hasn’t seen his family since the pandemic began. This includes a new grandchild.

Asked if his leadership position led him to that decision, Emanuel told Healthline it was more his understanding of what’s needed that led him to follow the guidelines.

“I won’t go to see my children and grandchildren to keep everyone safe from COVID-19 and healthy,” Emanuel said. “I have to be responsible for protecting the health of my family and doing what I can not to spread COVID-19 in the community. This deprivation is necessary especially when COVID-19 is surging everywhere.”

That, Breen said, is the bottom line.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t just about policy,” Breen said. “It’s about life. It’s about trying not to put more people in the ground. People are confused, and there is the fear factor. The more consistent our leaders can be in how we do this and showing it, the better.”