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Guest opinion: COVID-19 during an election offers a preview of the candidate’s leadership skills

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Colin Powell famously remarked that “leadership is solving problems.” Any business, church or government leader knows that running a successful organization, particularly in the COVID-19 environment, is a daily exercise in creative problem-solving.

As chairman of the Utah Republican Party, my task in this environment has been to take an organization accustomed to operating the way any state political party always has — in person, face-to-face — and convert it into one that incorporates 21st-century technology, while still maintaining its core values.

Fortunately, with the help of amazing staff and countless volunteers, we will still be holding our 2020 nominating convention on April 25, as scheduled. Many of our candidates have already adapted to these new changes, spending the last few weeks utilizing technology to engage with delegates in new and creative ways. This is certainly a change in the way we have traditionally done business, and it is a change I wholeheartedly welcome.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with change. Some have wondered whether it would be easier to simply cancel the convention altogether. Some have even suggested that government action should be taken that intrudes into the party processes, forcibly placing all candidates on a primary ballot. That, of course, would be a solution even worse than the underlying problem. After all, if it is now more challenging to connect with 4,000 delegates — which, of course, it undoubtedly is — how is forcing candidates to instead connect with 700,000 primary voters a viable solution?

Speaking as one who has not slept much in the last few weeks, that “throw in the towel” approach might save the party some time. However, that is not what a party does. It is also inconsistent with the promises I made while campaigning. One of the reasons our party remains vibrant in the current environment is because we are able to adapt quickly to changes. The same is true for successful political candidates.

The strength of the Utah Republican Party is on full display this year with a truly “deep bench” of candidates. The women and men running for office have a collective breadth and depth of experience greater than any prior year in recent memory. For example, look at the Republican candidates running to be our next governor. There is a breathtaking amount of experience, background, and skills in that distinguished group. They are leaders and problem-solvers.

And now these leaders are faced with an intractable problem not a single one could have ever anticipated when they started their campaigns, many of them well over a year ago: how does a candidate personally engage with delegates and voters at a time where social distancing is a necessity?

While many bemoan these challenges, we should see this for what it is: an amazing opportunity to watch future leaders demonstrate their problem-solving skills.

During job interviews, many organizations attempt to place the applicant in simulations that help them assess how the candidate might perform if they were hired. Might I suggest this is an opportunity for us to do the same? Truly, our party’s 2020 delegates have a coveted front-row seat to watch these candidates collectively showcase their problem-solving skills — live, and in real time.

I have been amazed at the creativity and ingenuity showcased in just the last few weeks by so many candidates — those running for governor, legislature, school board and county offices. Many candidates have not missed a beat, pivoting their entire campaign organizations virtually overnight, and in a way that seamlessly adapts to the new COVID-19 constraints. And make no mistake — delegates are watching.

After all, how a candidate tackles this problem is nothing more than preview of how they will tackle even bigger problems if elected. And, if Colin Powell is right, and leadership is fundamentally about solving problems, then watch closely in the coming months. Our next generation of leaders is about to shine.

Derek Brown is chairman of the Utah Republican Party.