Most Exemplary Leadership: Amy Acton

Joel Oliphint
Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton at a coronavirus news conference on Saturday, March 14, at the Ohio Statehouse.

For every celebrated leader, there’s usually a defining moment — that time when a person’s actions and words come together right when they’re needed most. And while it’s fair to say this entire COVID-19 crisis is a defining moment for Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, there isn’t one particular action, speech or pithy, quotable phrase that sums up why, at daily afternoon press conferences alongside Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, she has become so much more than a friendly face in a white lab coat.

But Acton’s combination of smarts, strength and bold action, all delivered with a calm, reassuring bedside manner, has turned her into a beloved public figure across Ohio. TV news reporters bring her flowers. Clothing company Homage made a T-shirt in her honor emblazoned with the phrase “Not all heroes wear capes.” “Through the uncertainty, [Acton] has emerged as a voice of reason and a beacon of light for those of us looking for ways to act,” the company wrote in a social media post.

Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes called Acton “the real MVP of Ohio’s coronavirus response. She’s explaining public health concepts while making it easy to understand why these interventions are necessary.” 

While DeWine has rightfully garnered praise for his leadership and decisive action, Acton’s role in the crisis management can’t be understated. The bold steps taken by DeWine are often a result of Acton’s recommendations based on the most recent data available.

Not that Acton attempts to take credit for any of this, instead praising the “eloquent” governor’s “sage guidance.” “I couldn’t explain it better than he is,” she said during Tuesday’s press conference. She doesn’t point fingers or shift blame. On the contrary, she is generous with compliments. She thanks her hardworking team frequently and shouts out “amazing” researchers who provide her with potentially life-saving data.

But even more important, Acton consistently thanks Ohioans for their sacrifices, especially when it comes to social distancing (or “physical distancing," Acton’s preferred term). She doesn’t paint a rosy picture of what the next few weeks will look like in Ohio, but she does reassure us that the steps being collectively taken by Ohioans are helping. “What you're doing is absolutely taking the pressure off our healthcare system,” Acton told viewers on Tuesday. “We are doing the right thing. I believe it with every bone in my body.”

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She also smiles. She speaks with her hands. When she’s communicating a potentially complex concept, she squints a bit. She’s relatable, and even vulnerable at times. In an early press conference, Acton mentioned her daughter but forgot her age. Her time on camera is filled with these human moments. On Tuesday, she even acknowledged how awkward it can be as the camera slowly, painfully pans from one podium to the next.

Acton doesn’t want us to be surprised by what's to come. She wants us to be prepared. She explains charts, graphs and numbers in a way that is easy to comprehend, even when it’s a bitter pill to swallow. When the death toll rises and things may look and feel grim, Acton remains steadfast. “I don’t want you to be afraid. I am not afraid. I am determined,” she said from her podium on Sunday.

Ohioans have already begun to notice the way their fellow citizens are stepping up and caring for each other during this crisis, even if it’s just waving hello from across the street while getting some much-needed fresh air. A few days ago, I saw a woman picking up litter along one of Clintonville’s ravines. The recent rainstorms had washed up all manner of trash into the woods, and her bag was overflowing. “Thanks so much for doing that,” I called out. “YOU ARE SO WELCOME, FRIEND!” she responded.

While it’s probably overstatement to give Acton all the credit for this pervasive combination of sacrifice, resilience and warmth radiating throughout the state, it’s also a direct reflection of what she and DeWine are asking of Ohioans. And lest we forget or temporarily lose our way, Acton will be back on our TV screens and tablets and laptops at the (notoriously tardy) 2 p.m. press conference the next day, embodying those same character traits and leading Ohio by example.