There have been many comments through the media on the quality of leadership that we’ve experienced through the corona virus crisis. Much has been made of the difference between male and female leadership of nations and the differences that these have led to, in terms of number of cases, deaths and the economy.

It has also been remarkable to observe the different kinds of leadership that have appeared from the business world and the nuances of behaviours and approach that give differing signals of the levels of humanity, support or otherwise of various leaders.

So, my article today considers some of the qualities of leadership that have made an appearance in this crisis.

Firstly, I need to highlight the case I made for the need for Enlightened Leadership – from my book of the same title published in 2016 – which asked that human beings and their needs being placed above economics and the bottom line. Looking back now, it seems prescient to have made that argument, and then four years on, to have the world re-emphasise this important prioritisation.

In a strange way, it has become the acceptable face of leadership, that it has in effect become a ‘fait accompli’, in an expedited and speedy way. The economic crisis of 2008/9 with the emphasis on economics and greed, has become totally unacceptable in the face of a pandemic that has already infected more than 6.5 million people and killed at least 382,000 (as of today 3 June 2020).

It’s somewhat reassuring that it has been clearly demonstrated that there is something more powerful than money in our culture and society.

So this leads me to state that the first quality required of leaders is something that’s not previously been identified which is:

Where strong leadership has been demonstrated that has met approbation, respect and adherence to requests, it has come from leaders who put their people first and the bottom line a far distant second. Prime Minister Ardern has been widely praised for her humane and empathic approach when ordering complete lockdown, and her firm approach on full lockdown, testing and quarantining was emphasised by her putting the lives of people above all else. This humane approach was backed up by allowing entry into her family life when going online to answer questions directly from people after putting her children to sleep.

Other female leaders, of Norway, Taiwan and Germany have connected with people with compassion, directness and empathy. Similarly Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor expressed the ‘people first, and the economy second’ in his schemes to support people when not working, and enabling companies to furlough employees rather than make them unemployed.
When Prime Minister Arden ordered a pay cut of 20% herself and her ministers for 6 months, she was clearly demonstrating and expressing that she and her ministers needed to feel some of the impact that others in her country were going to feel when they were not going to receive the income that they had been used to.This action was also replicated by some business leaders who cut their salaries by between 20 – 35%.

Furloughing was an innovate new scheme introduced into the UK by Rishi Sunak and this highly human focused scheme – motivated to protect people and their lives – would also expedite a speedy return to economic activity. Business leaders were quick to take advantage, and the immediate support for workers was highly welcome. If the furlough scheme operates as designed, many millions of workers will return to their previous work buoyed up by the awareness of the value they are held by their leaders. If the support is short term, and followed by unemployment, resentment and ill feeling will quickly replace the good feeling.

Another quality that has been in evidence in this crisis is

Decisiveness has been an important quality demonstrated in the response of leaders who took positive steps to prevent infections and handle the pandemic quickly. Some leaders decisively chose to deny the situation, or to ignore or play down the relevance of advice provided by the World Health Organisation, and this led to much higher cases in their country. The UK and USA were slow to respond to advice and the results are clearly disastrous.

But those leaders who recognised the need and didn’t shy away from recognising the awesome challenge that the pandemic posed, and took a ‘throw every possible measure’ to block the corona virus from infecting more people (testing, quarantining and lockdown) early were the most successful. Those who strung out the response over time, lost ground with terrible effect.

Leaders of businesses which were either front-line in delivering food, health, PPE or other necessary manufacturing activities had to act quickly and decisively to help make their people safe whilst enabling them to be active. Innovation and creativity came to the fore in their responses and undoubtedly their business revenues will reflect the results of this for this year and going forward.

Unprecedented demand for online and technology services catapulted those businesses into decisive and fast response to deliver to the increasing demand from people working from home. Some countries saw between 40 and 50% increase of broadband use. Breaches of security at Zoom had to be quickly rectified when the business world took to Zoom meetings as their alternative to face to face meetings. Similar growth of other online meeting platforms such as Google or Microsoft Teams were enabled to meet customer demand. And many other technologies, social and connecting platforms were expedited into growth and service delivery.
Demonstrating that in every crisis, there is opportunity, for those with the creativity and innovation to respond quickly to what is needed.

The third quality that came to the fore in the pandemic was:

This quality in leaders led to very many different responses, such as recognising the need to constantly communicate to their audience, whether it was their nation, their staff or their customers and other stakeholders. Daily briefings by the government have become a norm in the UK, the US and many other countries.
In the domain of business, leaders took action to support staff either through regular and consistent team meetings, delivering virtual and remote working policies and other support systems that allowed staff to feel valued. Facilitating webinars that advised on resilience or de-stressing activities were also promoted to staff locked into their personal homes. Empathic leaders recognised that there was a wide divergence between those of their staff who had a house and garden, lived with others and had family with them, and those living alone, in a flat or room without recourse to family. The latter’s experience of lockdown was very different, with very high stress and anxiety levels. Recognising this and offering support with either 1-2-1 counselling or group webinars addressing specific issues are appreciated.
In the realm of business, Harvard Business Publishing conducted a recent survey asking whether participants felt that their organizations are doing a good job when it comes to balancing business priorities with employee needs in this time of crisis. More than two thirds rated their companies as doing extremely well (29%) or very well (40%). Similar numbers expressed confidence that they could rely on their leadership to protect their safety and the safety of their teams.
One wonders however, how bad the experience has been for the 31% and what a leader with strong empathy would make of their experience?

One hopes that in the post Covid19 world, leaders are likely to be more humane, understanding and supportive of the people who work for them. And, that the qualities they’ve developed during these times of crisis, will have built a consciousness that recognises the equality of people, their value and their contribution, which all need to be appreciated.

Penny Sophocleous
8 June 2020