Years ago, Commander Joe Fairchild, my boss on a Human Resource Management (HRM) Team in San Diego, gave me stunning news: “I’ve been experiencing sleepless nights,” he said, “and have determined that you — not myself — must be our Lead Consultant to the carrier, along with Chief Kjono as co-Lead. I cannot be a consultant to a Navy Captain and possibly give him poor data. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way?’” I nodded, “Yes sir.”  Joe continued, “You lead, I’ll back you and get out of the way.” 

         Joe, a mustang (former enlisted), understood his strengths and weaknesses. As HRM Specialists we were required to consult with commanding officers and executive officers, oftentimes senior in rank. Wisely, Joe passed this task to more able and skilled team members.

         The urgency of saving American lives today calls for extraordinary, experienced leadership. Local elected officials are struggling to protect their people and the people are worrying about following rules, yet the rules change daily as does the rhetoric. Rather than following a national plan we are devolving into individual states. 

         Our country lacks a Plan with a national strategy and  Initiatives (or Goals), Objectives, Action Steps, Dates, and Accountability to Defeat COVID-19. The Plan’s purpose would be to bring clarity to the American people — and their leaders — about our national response: To use science and medicine to defeat the virus while leaders and all Americans reinforce the tenets of American democracy. 

         Start the work with short-term issues that become Goals: 

         • What are the lines of authority during this crisis? Who’s in charge?

At what level are decisions made?

         • How best to nationalize distribution of resources to the states under the Defense Production Act and coordinate supply-chain activity?

         • Should testing be nationalized?

         • How to use the full capabilities of the Department of Defense to defend the nation against COVID-19?

         • How to depoliticize leadership? How to reduce the partisan tones among national leaders toward achieving unification of the nation at least during this life-or-death crisis?         

         • How to brief the American people regularly and gain their trust and confidence? What is the best use of the time and abilities of the President and Vice President during the crisis?

         • How to minimize deaths (to be addressed directly by WHO and medical advisors)? 

         Next, move to the year ahead, establishing the longer-term issues which then become Goals. Many critical issues need to be deliberated and written up by the planners. 

         The Task Force needs to add planners without delay to write the Federal Strategic Plan to Defeat the COVID-19 Virus. Given the existential nature of the threat, persons trained in planning can draft the first cut in 7-10 days, with briefings to the Task Force throughout that period. 

Military officers would be ideal for this task, though civilians with planning experiences and policy knowledge should also be assigned. This should not be a military action, but informed by the extensive planning experience of the American military. 

Realizing that federal actions or non-actions will cause life or death outcomes, it is imperative to appoint our finest leaders. This Strategic Plan, or Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) could come together quickly with a leader or director such as retired flag officers James Stavridis, William McRaven, or James Mattis. Bill Gates might also be perfect. 

         My experiences, in both military and civilian settings, taught me that an organization usually rises from a status of mediocre to first class via the writing and implementation of a strategic plan. A cautionary note: a Plan will only be successful if planners have the full support of top leaders.

         Mr. President, it is time to step up to the plate and direct a few changes on the Coronavirus Task Force, thus unifying and healing the country through planners who will help us defeat this malevolent enemy. Then, please back the planners, get out of the way, and carry on with your other duties.

         I write from my home in a Senior Retirement Community in San Diego where we have been in lockdown for over three weeks.

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”  

Note: the quote is attributed to several: Thomas Paine, Lee Iococca

And General Patton. It’s often used in Navy circles.


  • Beth F. Coye

    Commander, U.S. Navy (ret.)

    Commander Beth F. Coye, U.S. Navy (retired), is a graduate of Wellesley College, the American University School of International Service, the School of Naval Warfare (Naval War College) and is a former commanding officer. She has served in many leadership capacities and is an activist/writer who resides in San Diego, California.