5 Nov 2020

Pandemic as a leadership litmus test

Prof. Yossi Mekelberg

As we are fast approaching the unfortunate first anniversary of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a vaccine is at least several months away, many questions remain on how we have reached this point. The coronavirus infection tally has surpassed 45 million, and more than 1.2 million people have succumbed to it. Inevitably, among the most acute issues that have surfaced is that of leadership.

Amid the worst global crisis since World War II, one that is wreaking havoc with our lives and causing most of us to be torn between health concerns and economic survival, we must question the conduct of the politicians who we have entrusted with safeguarding us. After all, when individual and collective futures are at stake, a major crisis is a litmus test for good (and bad) leadership.

In a matter of a few months, the disparities between the qualities that different governments have demonstrated in their handling of the pandemic have revealed a strong correlation between certain key factors – among them gender, a system of governance, the extent of populism among leaders, and the very character and mental makeup of individuals in key positions. These factors have defined a country’s degree of success in halting the pandemic.

For now, in the absence of a vaccine, the main priority remains to contain the virus’s spread. This requires leadership that can handle the delicate balance between the need to restrict human contact and the risk of causing irreversible damage to the economy, harm to delicate social networks and adverse effects on people’s mental health. However, very few world leaders have handled this crisis with the competence, skills, and emotional intelligence that the situation requires.

Despite its apparent simplicity, “leadership” is an elusive concept. It has been defined, for instance, as “the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” Some emphasize the character of individual leaders to understand their motivations, achievements, and failures. Others focus on the relation between leaders and followers, where the balance of power between the two is significantly in favor of the former, while the followers either elect or are coerced to place their welfare, and in many cases their lives, in their leaders’ hands.

When assessing the quality of leadership, it is essential to consider aspects of processes, goals and the psychology of relations between those who govern and the governed. Political leadership differs from most other leadership types in that it deals with a near-indefinite number of issues ranging from the mundane to those of life and death, and always in the glare of publicity. In a democracy, there are millions of “employers” who decide periodically, at election time, whether to maintain their “contract” with the present leadership or whether to replace it with another one. However, if on election day power is in the hands of the followers, for the duration of the government’s term the balance is tilted heavily in favor of the leaders, who nevertheless are obliged to constantly monitor the mood of the public, even if only to be able to manipulate it.

Leadership can be classified along the lines of democratic vs. authoritarian, managerial vs. ideological and inspirational, task-oriented vs emphasis on people skills, and transactional vs transformational. These typologies are not exclusive and any given leader or leadership could potentially operate with a range of such characteristics. Moreover, there is the never-ending debate on whether leadership qualities are innate or acquired, with so many courses available and countless self-improvement books dealing with the topic. Though many leadership skills, such as setting clear objectives, planning, teamwork, negotiation skills, focused and effective decision making, or even active listening, can be acquired through learning and experience, others such as charisma, decisiveness, risk-taking and empathy can be improved among those who already possess such traits.

It would be too simplistic to compare current global leaderships by simply correlating them with statistics on how hard the pandemic has hit their countries; nevertheless, this provides a very good indication. A crisis is usually regarded as a situation that comprises surprise elements and threat to vital interests. It allows decision-makers very little time to form an opinion, make a decision, and act on it. Most such cases involve life-and-death decisions.

One of the most painstakingly studied crises in recent history was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union installed nuclear missile bases just 90 miles from the United States mainland, and hence in the immediate proximity of its main Cold War rival. Between the discovery of the bases by a high-altitude US reconnaissance aircraft and potential installation of the missiles, there was a very short time available for the Kennedy administration to decide how to remove this threat from its doorstep without causing a third world war that might annihilate humankind. The handling of the crisis by both sides, President Kennedy for the US and First Secretary Khrushchev for the Soviet Union, was hailed as a masterpiece of averting a catastrophe of unimaginable scale.

Kennedy took the very unorthodox approach of assembling a decision-making team to deal with this threat, regardless of their formal positions in the administration, and allowed it to explore a range of options and meticulously examine the merits and the dangers that each pose. Significantly, his team kept all options open as intelligence kept rolling in. Eventually, the decision they took to blockade Cuba and prevent Russian ships from entering Cuban ports was the least confrontational, but simultaneously conveyed to Moscow the determination of Washington to avert the threat of nuclear weapons positioned so close to its shores.

The scale of the current global pandemic crisis poses a new set of challenges, as the enemy is unconventional, invisible to the naked eye, and, in terms of the health “arms race”, is currently way ahead of the answers most countries have in their medical armory. Yet, we have witnessed how certain leaderships recognized the danger posed by this lethal virus at an early stage and were prepared to quickly take unpopular though necessary measures such as closing their borders and enforcing complete lockdowns.

Consequently, these countries could contain the impact of the virus much more successfully than those who, instead of entering a crisis decision-making mode and acting upon scientific advice, indulged in unsubstantiated optimism. Such leaders demonstrated a greater concern with the immediate impact on their economy and what might upset their constituencies, political allies, or certain segments of the media, all while in complete denial that the world now faced an extremely dangerous and unprecedented predicament. No country has yet defeated this wretched pandemic, and to do so will most probably require finding an effective vaccine available to all. But some nations have been fortunate enough to enjoy competent and courageous leadership that managed to control the pandemic instead of being controlled by it.

It is tempting to argue that a more authoritarian government should be better positioned to contain a threat such as a coronavirus pandemic, since the public is more likely to follow its decrees, stay at home and avoid contact with others. The prime example is China, where the pandemic first started, but following swift and decisive measures, it has also reduced case numbers to a current level of around 20 a day, a tiny number considering its size. But this is just one example, and some democracies have coped with the current health crisis equally well without curtailing most of their civil and human rights.

Interestingly, most of these countries are led by women. An analysis of 194 countries published by the Center of Economic Research and the World Economic Forum has revealed that the countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” Covid-19 outcomes through responding rapidly and locking down early on. These countries have suffered, on average, half as many deaths as those led by men.

For now, the good leadership’s success in addressing the coronavirus remains relative, and there is still quite a journey to eradicate it or at least minimize its impact on our daily lives. Yet, Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, and Finland’s Sanna Marin have been in the spotlight for their resolute and, at the same time, empathetic handling of the pandemic.

A study by Supriya Garikipati of Liverpool University and Uma Kambhampati of Reading University has shown that decision-making skills are essential in dealing with a health crisis, such as pragmatism and benevolence, feature more commonly among female managers. Moreover, the qualities of resilience, pragmatism, compassion, trust, altruism, collective common sense, and humility required by a situation as complex as the coronavirus outbreak are, according to this research, more prevalent among women leaders – hence their success.

This is not to argue that male leaders are devoid of these characteristics and skills. However, societies that elect women are more inclusive, which provides for a broader perspective in public life, including at times of crisis, and results in a better representation of the society in the centers of power, lacking in most other countries.

 Jacinda Ardern’s landslide victory in New Zealand’s recent general election testified to the voters’ support of how she has run the country. In her three years of office, she has faced more crises than some leaders face in a lifetime. Whether it was the horrific terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, the volcanic eruption in Whakaari, or the coronavirus pandemic, Ardern’s measured approach, based on expert advice but at the same time humane in nature, demonstrated that these two features don’t contradict each other and should instead go hand in hand.

Visiting the devastated mosques and hugging victims’ families was complemented by an immediate ban on semi-automatic firearms; closing the country’s borders on the advice of scientists in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak when the number of infections was tiny, was accompanied by the naming of every single New Zealander who fell victim to it, on the understanding that a victim is more than a mere statistic.

Similarly, for the third year running, Gallup’s annual global poll in 135 countries has found Germany to be the world’s most admired country for its global leadership. Much of this accolade is due to Chancellor Merkel, who has been at the helm for 15 years. Merkel’s more traditional leadership style stands out in a world suffering from the plague of populist-nationalist leaders more interested in scoring cheap points on social media than looking after their people’s well-being.

She has defied the zeitgeist of leaders who acquire and maintain power by being slick, divisive, brutal, and shallow in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. She is the anti-thesis of such men, with her straightforward, analytical approach that is true to her scientific background; and rather than pander to some mythical support base. She is ready to lead from the front, avoid shortcuts on tough issues, and take the path she truly believes is right for the country and the world.

This pandemic has, for better or worse, exposed leaderships for their skills and competencies, or lack thereof, and it remains to be seen whether, by the time the world returns to some degree of normality, the great question of what makes a good leader and good leadership will be any closer to being resolved. However, the Covid-19 virus that has turned our lives upside-down has provided us with several useful clues to decipher the mystery of what mix of characteristics and skills will produce a good and successful leader.

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