Steve Anderson knows a thing or two about leadership, having worked for both a congressman and, during his student days, a member of the British Parliament; run for the House of Representatives; and headed three major trade associations, currently as president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Recently he shared insights gleaned from firsthand experience, supplemented by an avid interest in history, as part of the “Lessons in Leadership” series sponsored by the George Washington Leadership Institute at the eponymous presidential library.
In conversation with Peter Cressy, the institute’s director of executive leadership programs, Anderson explored the subject through the lens of crisis management, and how emergency situations were handled by the three men generally regarded as the greatest U.S. presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — together with Winston Churchill, who led the United Kingdom through the Second World War. Anderson and Cressy applied the common elements of crisis leadership that emerged — among them, an early effort to control anxiety and fear; effective communication; visibility, resolve and determination; and collaboration forged through personal credibility — to current challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
While many of today’s political leaders fall well short of the standards set by Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill, individuals and organizations in the private sector are stepping forward to help fill the void. The response of NACDS and its members to the coronavirus crisis is a case in point.
“We’ve been dealing with this pandemic 24/7 for the last five months,” Anderson said. “When the president declared, ‘This is a national emergency,’ in the Rose Garden, our member companies were represented and spoke at that event. There was a public-private partnership between our members and the government in terms of doing COVID testing, which has been a challenge for this country, and it still is.”
The chain pharmacy sector’s willingness to support coronavirus testing was not an unusual event. The industry’s commitment to public health is once again evident as its begins the process of immunizing millions of Americans against influenza, and lays the groundwork for administering a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one wins approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“In the last flu season, 2018-2019, one-third of all adults received their flu shot in one of our member company stores, about 35 million people,” noted Anderson. “So the infrastructure is there.
“We’re working very closely with the government to ensure that our members, as the face of neighborhood health care, can provide the [coronavirus] vaccine and administer it. … We have continually worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on pandemic planning, long before COVID-19 hit. And CDC has said that we can immunize 80% of the American people seven weeks faster if we use the talents and the skills of pharmacists. So our members need to play a role in this. We’re ready to go.”
A key to the industry’s ability to respond effectively to societal issues that impact patients, customers and communities — including health care disparities, social determinants of health and workforce diversity — is the leadership, perspicacity and political savvy of Anderson and NACDS.
“One thing about association work,” he said, “it’s a place where a bunch of competitors can get together and find common ground. And that is very unique. We do that in the private sector in associations, which is something that we don’t necessarily get in government.
“Somebody said, ‘What’s your job as president of NACDS or the National Restaurant Association or the American Frozen Food Institute?’ I started out life as a music major. I switched over to political science, and I’m still kind of dealing with political science. But I feel like I’m a conductor of an orchestra, and that’s really what a trade association person is.
“You have many different constituencies, from your staff to your members to your board to your executive committee to suppliers. The trick is to have them all playing off the same song sheet. By themselves, they’re not that powerful, not that beautiful. It’s just one instrument playing. But you can create great beauty by getting them all to play together, and really that’s what an association executive does. That’s the way we operate NACDS, and I think it’s been good.”
Anyone who takes the time to examine the work Anderson and the team he has assembled are doing would have to agree.