Gabe Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, stressed that in times of crisis, leaders need to stay true to the priorities of their organizations. 

That was his message to the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 10. 

Gabe Sterling, COO for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, speaks with Leslie Mullis, a candidate for Sandy Springs City Council District 3, beofre the start of the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber luncheon where he was guest speaker. (Bob Pepalis)

As the person in charge of the largest rollout of voting equipment in U.S. history for Georgia, Sterling shared his lessons of leading through a crisis that he gained during 2020. It was an election year drastically altered by the pandemic, just as the state switched to a secure paper ballot voting system. Sterling was thrust into the national spotlight when he blasted claims by then President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders of voter fraud in the Georgia elections.

Sterling said the crisis began when the presidential preference primary was suspended – first from March 24 to May 19, but as the pandemic worsened again to June 9 at the same time as Senate and House of Representatives primaries. More than 200,000 absentee ballot applications had been made. The Secretary of State’s Office decided to keep them rather than redo the entire election and tell voters to download new requests online. Combining the primaries forced them to redesign ballots and find a printer in a matter of weeks when it normally was a months-long process.

“We took the more difficult route that was best for those organizations servicing our voters,” Sterling said, meaning they kept the needs of the voters as the priority.

“I understand when things like a real crisis hit, clear thinking goes out,” he said. It’s replaced by stress, worry and fear. The fear of failure is the biggest concern because people in leadership positions have responsibility for everyone around them, he said.

Preparations can be made to deal with a crisis, starting with hiring the right people and developing the right culture within the organization, Sterling said.

“Good people are the single most important foundational step. Secondly, a culture of trust needs to be developed internally. Honesty, integrity — it’s impossible to necessarily teach these things, but you can tell it through your own initiative from the top down,” he said.

He also emphasized establishing good communication across the organization and with outside parties, which will help in a crisis.

Everyone thinks they’re ready for a crisis, but rarely are they, he said.

When the pandemic hit, causing former President Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to declare health emergencies in 2020, the job of the Secretary of State’s office shifted. Older people were especially vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus. And it’s often older people who work the polls and vote in primaries, Sterling said. 

He said the Secretary of State’s Office had to speed up its decision making. Most failures are not bad decisions, but instead are due to indecision, he said.

“Indecision is a killer. It’s over analysis, just talking something to death while time takes off [that] you do not have,” Sterling said.

Avoid the circle of blame, he said. “If something goes wrong sideways, make another decision.”

Sterling said a leader in a crisis situation will have incomplete information and a limited view of the risk. But the leader must still have confidence in the positions taken and the team executing those decisions.

The former Sandy Springs City Council member said he remembered something he learned from Mayor Rusty Paul — that it’s not often a leader has two clear options, with one being the easy or right thing to do. Usually there are two bad options, but the leader has to decide which one is the best choice for that situation, Sterling said. 

After his talk, Sterling was asked about Fulton County and an effort for the state to take over its elections. He said Fulton County is sloppy in its management of elections. Ballots were lost and double counts were made.

“So there’s actual, genuine issues here, the largest county, I get it. They also have the most resources of any county. They should be doing better than everybody else and they don’t,” he said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.