Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Lessons Learned (So Far) From Pandemic Management

Photo. David Unmacht, Executive Director of the League of Minnesota CitiesWhen I was an inexperienced city administrator, what was then known as the International City Management Association published a reference book widely recognized as the city management bible.

For reasons purely of the binding, we referred to it as the “Green Book,” and it had all the answers to questions about how to manage a city. The Green Book was an ever-reliable resource, a onestop shop.

Now, many years later, when we closed the League building on March 18 due to coronavirus concerns for the safety of our staff and members, I didn’t need a book to guide me in this decision. I trusted my judgment, the counsel of my Board of Directors and staff, and advice from trusted public health authorities. In my lifetime, I’ve never closed an office building. Interesting how a decision never made before, whether a career is 40 years, four years, or four days, is easy when it’s obvious.

I write this column on April 15, nearly one month into the League’s fully remote work environment, and nearly one month before this column appears in the magazine you’re reading.

In pandemic crisis management, that is a lifetime.

illustration, lessons of pandemic management

My goal with this column is to share a few lessons of early pandemic management that all city leaders, regardless of your position of authority or years of experience, can apply in managing the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your city.

“Crises teach us that CEOs aren’t expected to be as right as they are expected to be engaged,” wrote John Stoll in a recent Wall Street Journal column. During this pandemic, I can no longer simply walk around the building to stay engaged.

I’m learning new and even better ways to connect with people. My discovery has led to both creative and fun exchanges. In-person conversation has been replaced by more phone calls, texts, and countless virtual meetings.

I’ve learned these lessons: It’s not the medium, but the effort; it’s not how your message is communicated, but what you say. Be who you are; stay true to your core values and beliefs, but be ready and willing to
adjust your methods. Through this new engagement period, I’m just as accessible as always and, as my staff knows best, not always right!

The challenges I face in managing the League during this pandemic are real, but pale in comparison to those of the president, governor, city leaders, public health officials, health care workers, and first responders (to name only a few).

The true test of my skills is not what was accomplished in the past four years; rather, the test is now and continues for the next 60, 90, 120 days.

Quote. All prior goals and priorities matter less in a pandemic.

All prior goals and priorities matter less in a pandemic. Be willing to accept the role and responsibility you have, and recognize the pressures you face are privileges and invitations for you to lead. Recently, I offered this message to my team: “This is daunting, challenging, yet exciting and motivating. It’s an opportunity I did not ask for or want, but it’s an opportunity I fully accept.” In crisis management, there are moments of reflection where a deep breath can exhale emotions of exhaustion and anxiety. Leaders are not robots or mechanical systems running on autopilot 24/7. Leaders are humans with personal needs and priorities balanced with organizational and community obligations.

I’m worrying about my 86-year-old mother, my wife (a nurse manager at Abbott Northwestern Hospital), my three children, and my extended family.

Yet, I am present and accountable for my staff and our members. Be human and understand that no matter the crisis, or depth of despair, a leader’s responsibility is personal safety, and safety of his or her family, staff, residents, and community.

By the time you read this, the early May target date for the opening of the League’s building will have come and gone; Gov. Walz’s Stay-at-Home Executive Order will have expired; and new state and federal rules now apply.

A crisis teaches us that news cycles change rapidly; what’s important to know today is not as relevant tomorrow.

A tough decision you needed to make will seem easy when the next challenge is before you. The pace of change is constant and information fluid. Always trust reliable sources for information to help guide your decisions.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1205.