Former President Donald Trump gets credit for Operation Warp Speed. The program, formally announced in May 2020, was an initiative of the U.S. government to develop, manufacture, and eventually distribute COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Remarkably, Operation Warm Speed bore fruit before Trump left office. But America’s chief executive was so fixated on losing the election to Joe Biden that on this single, but also singular success he never took the victory lap he rightfully deserved.
In every way though Trump’s leadership and management of the pandemic was miserably poor. During his administration the United States, which has just over 4 % of the world’s total population, had well over 20 % of the world’s total cases of COVID. One month after Trump left office the U.S. reached the half million mark – more than 500,000 Americans had died of the disease, most obviously during his tenure.
Now, less than two months after President Joe Biden took office, the situation has been reversed. From being one of the world’s poorest performers, the U.S. has transformed into one of the world’s best. Specifically, when ranked according to how many people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the last couple of months, the United States is doing very well. This is by no means a done deal – the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can claim the pandemic is history. Moreover, because they live in a rich country and not in a poor one Americans have a built-in advantage.
Still, here some comparisons.
- Israel, by this measure the world’s best performing country, has as of today already vaccinated 55.8 % of its total population.
- As of today, the U.S. has vaccinated only 17. 5 % of its total population. However, compare this number with Germany’s. In 2020 Germany managed the pandemic splendidly well. But, to date, the government has been able to vaccinate only 5.9 % of Germans. In France, the numbers are even worse. Only 5.6 % of its total population has received even a single shot in the arm.
What accounts for this remarkable American turnaround? Setting aside the astonishing fact that the Biden administration is about to get through Congress one of the largest fiscal relief, or stimulus bills in American history, how has it happened that the president and his team have done so well on vaccine distribution in so short a time in office? One word – competence.
Competence is the most underrated word in the leadership lexicon. Why? Two reasons. First because it is pedestrian – competence sounds tedious. Who among us wants a competent leader when we can have a heroic leader? Or an inspiring leader? Or a charismatic leader? Second, because competence sounds more in the realm of management than leadership.
I have before written about the problems that result from the constant confusion between leadership and management. Underplaying the importance of competence is one of them. No use having a leader who is heroic or inspiring or charismatic if he or she is not, also, competent.
Leaders do not themselves have to be competent. But if they are not, they must know enough about what they don’t know to assemble a competent team. A team that is both willing and able to carry out the leader’s promise, realize the leader’s plan, implement the leader’s policy. Absent these, please spare me the grand ambitions, the soaring rhetoric, and the false prophesy of the American dream.