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How Business Leaders Beat Back COVID—and Government Didn’t

Liz Hoffman’s Crash Landing is a look at how major CEOs dealt with the economic tumult of 2020 created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every CEO, indeed every American, was tested in this period. As leaders, the CEOs needed to make quick, often hard, decisions about how to proceed and what to do for themselves, for their companies, and for the country as a whole.

Hoffman seeks to put readers into the room with these CEOs and their key advisers as decisions are hashed out in real time. Although she admits that the sources were not always in the room, she gets the access and information that gives the book the admirable detail, assuming you like that sort of thing. Hoffman’s level of granularity goes all the way down to what kind of coffee various CEOs like, and how they liked to prepare it. (Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon would down four shots of decaf espresso.)

More important than the minor details, of course, are the ways the CEOs found themselves adjusting to the unknowns and realities of COVID. What’s striking is how different CEO approaches could be. Much of it was dependent on industry and sector. For instance, Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management saw the impending collapse and made more than $2.5 billion on a credit default swaps bet that predicted things would go down very quickly. Then he bet on the recovery and made another $1.5 billion, using his ability to get ahead of the curve to bring in $4 billion to his fund, which is wonderful news—if you’re invested in his fund.

Another CEO, Doug Parker of American Airlines, found himself negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the size of the government bailout, even though he had never before interacted with a Treasury secretary. One of his colleagues, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, even asked him, “What are you meeting with Mnuchin for?”

Ford Motor’s Jim Hackett responded to COVID by working to adjust Ford’s production capabilities in order to make on-the-fly respirators. The idea started with an idle comment Hackett made to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow—”Who knows, maybe we’ll make ventilators.” Kudlow’s response—”Well, Jim, that would be helpful”—got Hackett, and the company, moving. Hackett called Jim Baumbick, Ford’s head of enterprise product line management, who looked to the company’s storied history of helping the country in times of trouble, for inspiration. “Ford built bombers, we made iron lungs. There has to be something we can do.” Ford ended up making more than 40,000 of what they called “scrappy PAPRs”—purified air-powered respirators—in response to Kudlow’s comment to Hackett.

What’s interesting about the book is that every CEO had a role to play, and they stepped into those roles drawing on their abilities and their companies’ needs. Goldman’s Solomon had to find a way to use his employees in an industry that was not set up for work from home. The heavily regulated securities industry did not allow the use of personal computers for trading purposes, so Goldman had to figure out how to distribute Goldman computers to employees throughout the New York area. This was done with a combination of Ubers and personal vehicles—a combination of innovation and resilience.

Even though Solomon was okay with working from home during the worst of the pandemic, he was also eager to get his employees back to work as soon as he could. At one point, Hoffman reports that he barked that if employees could go to restaurants, they sure could go back to the office.

While many of the leaders mentioned performed well under these challenging circumstances, others were found wanting. Hoffman mentions, but does not dwell on, teachers’ union head Randi Weingarten. Weingarten deserves the criticism she has received for doing her utmost to keep kids from returning to school, a decision that not only harmed kids for years to come but also complicated the picture for CEOs trying to get parents back to work in the office. Weingarten’s harmful role in that dynamic goes unmentioned in her brief appearance.

One problem with the book is Hoffman’s political bent, which comes through in her writing. Calling the Wall Street Journal editorial page “conservative” is factual. Calling it “ultraconservative,” as Hoffman does, betrays ideological bias and can alienate readers who have a more informed view of appropriate descriptors.

In Crash Landing, Hoffman’s focus is primarily on private sector CEOs. But it is also worth noting that government leaders played a role in this as well. In this instance, they too were found wanting. Although there were some examples of government doing successful things, like the development of the warp speed vaccine in relatively short order—done with the assistance of the private sector, of course—in many other instances, the government failed. The CDC failed to develop a workable test for the coronavirus and stood in the way of letting others develop one. Our leaders failed to monitor the deadly virus’s progress in China. And government repeatedly, and knowingly, gave out false or misleading information that was not helpful in the fight against COVID or in rallying public trust. Hoffman’s focus is directed more toward various government aid packages, which were important and with which CEOs were involved in crafting, but the larger governmental prevention failures warrant further discussion.

If we are to do better next time, leaders of both government and private sector will have to lead better. Hoffman’s book gives us a sense of some of the CEOs who stepped up with initiative and helped us get through a challenging period, but it is also a sobering reminder of how poorly the government did in a trying time.

Crash Landing: The Inside Story of How the World’s Biggest Companies Survived an Economy on the Brink

by Liz Hoffman

Crown, 304 pp., $30

Tevi Troy, director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former deputy secretary of health and human services, is the author of four books on the presidency, including Shall We Wake the President: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.

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