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This paper maps political rhetoric by national leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. We identify and characterize global variations in major rhetorical storylines invoked in publicly available speeches (N = 1201) across a sample of 26 countries. Employing a text analytics or corpus linguistics approach, we show that state heads rhetorically lead their nations by: enforcing systemic interventions, upholding global unity, encouraging communal cooperation, stoking national fervor, and assuring responsive governance. Principal component analysis further shows that country-level rhetoric is organized along emergent dimensions of cultural cognition: an agency-structure axis to define the loci of pandemic interventions, and a hierarchy-egalitarianism axis which distinguishes top-down enforcement from bottom-up calls for cooperation. Furthermore, we detect a striking contrast between countries featuring populist versus cosmopolitan rhetoric, which diverged in terms of their collective meaning-making around leading over versus leading with, as well as their experienced pandemic severity. We conclude with implications for understanding global pandemic leadership in an unequal world, and the contributions of mixed methods approaches to a generative political psychology in times of crisis.