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The role of power-addiction and maladaptive denial in the US federal COVID-19 response

C. Ken Weidner II (Department of Management, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)
Lisa A.T. Nelson (Independent Researcher, Wayne, Pennsylvania, USA)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 15 December 2020

Issue publication date: 4 February 2021




Given the substantial resources of the United States, the failure of the American federal response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been both tragic and avoidable. The authors frame this response as an artifact of power-addiction among administration officials and examine the US federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of maladaptive denial by government officials, including President Trump.


The authors use qualitative research methods for this study by analyzing key events, public statements by administration officials from multiple credible media reports and US federal government websites. The authors analyzed these data using Weidner and Purohit's (2009) model describing maladaptive denial in organizations and power-addiction among leaders.


The authors' analysis identifies maladaptive denial – and the concomitant power-addiction – as significantly contributing to the Trump administration's failed response to COVID-19. Maladaptive denial and power-addiction characterized Trump as a candidate and for the three years of his presidency preceding the COVID-19 crisis. Whatever normative “guardrails” or checks and balances existed in the American system to restrict the administration's behavior before the crisis were ill-equipped to significantly prevent or alter the failed federal response to the pandemic.


The article applies the model of maladaptive denial in organizations (Weidner and Purohit, 2009) to the public sector, and explores the lengths to which power-addicted leaders and regimes can violate the public's trust in institutions in a crisis, even in the US, a liberal democracy characterized by freedom of political expression. While organizations and change initiatives may fail for a variety of reasons, this case revealed the extent to which maladaptive denial can permeate a government – or any organization – and its response to a crisis.



The authors thank the special issue editors, three anonymous reviewers, and Barbara Weidner for their thoughtful feedback that helped us improve this paper.


Weidner II, C.K. and Nelson, L.A.T. (2021), "The role of power-addiction and maladaptive denial in the US federal COVID-19 response", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 19-38.



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