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This pandemic will expose the true character of leaders

Mar 22, 2020 Leadership, Sunday Nation

A leader’s true character is only revealed during a crisis. A lot of people are now discovering this essential truth of leadership.

Good times don’t tell you much about the leader. If the economy is buoyant and times are normal and markets are free and institutions are strong, who leads doesn’t matter a whole lot. Products sell; people behave; exchanges occur. In such situations leaders often take credit for achievements that would probably have occurred even if a chatbot were in charge.

During a crisis it’s all different, and one thing this coronavirus will reveal is who the real leaders are. If you’re observing leaders, whether organizational or national, look for the following.

First, did the leader show up? When things are thick, the people need their leader to step up and lead them. They need to be directed; they need to know a grown-up is in charge; they need to know good judgement is being exercised. When panic is in the air, many bad leaders disappear. They stay silent and let their underlings talk to the people. A good leader shows up as soon as the situation is even vaguely understood and takes charge, even if it’s just to make an interim statement. And then keeps showing up to point out the path being taken and to keep explaining it.

Second, was the leader honest? Weak leaders follow this sequence: first, they try to bluff their way out by saying “crisis, what crisis?” Next, as the truth starts to emerge, they try to look for scapegoats and engage in childish blame-games. Then, finally and belatedly, they start acting and taking tough decisions, churlishly denying responsibility all the time. A good leader does not come armed with half-truths and weasel words, delivered while looking shifty and sullen. A good leader shares as much of the truth as possible, takes responsibility, and starts acting quickly.

Third, what are the leader’s priorities – where will the pain be allowed to land? A bad leader protects his or her own interests first; a good leader protects the weakest and most vulnerable people first. A bad leader protects share prices and profit margins first; a good one worries most about lives and livelihoods. A bad leader stays away from the danger zone; a good leader shares the pain. Many of you will have found out what your leader protects first.

Lastly, is your leader calm under pressure – or panicking like everyone else? Most people, let it be said, are complete strangers to equability and composure. They over-celebrate their wins and taunt their opponents; they screech loudly when they incur losses and look to assign blame. A leader, though, must be different. A leader must take the time to think and not offer knee-jerk emotions. A leader must steady the ship when it is listing badly. A leader must exhibit judgement and offer direction. That’s what leadership is. You are being paid to lead, not to be one of the screaming mob.

A crisis is when you actually justify your pay and rewards as a leader. And the Covid-19 pandemic is a proper crisis, the likes of which few of us have observed in our lifetimes. The next few weeks and months will not be normal in any sense. The abnormal is already commonplace: borders are closed; entire nations are locked down; there is much economic pain to come.

Even tougher decisions are imminent. Freedoms will be curtailed; incomes will be decimated; essential activities will be postponed. Decisions of that magnitude cannot be made by shallow and self-centred minds. 

In order to deal with this ghastly situation we will all have to reach out to others and collaborate. A virus does not attack one type of person; it is an assault on all of humanity. To tackle it, we have to rediscover our oneness and work in concert. Governments have to agree common protocols and offer safety nets; scientists have to share information; and corporations have to manage steep downturns with fairness and with an eye to the future.

If you are leading a bunch of people – a team, an organization, a nation – through this scary time, please be ready for the task. You will need all the strength and wisdom you can possibly muster. Compose yourself; calm your mind; search for bigger deals in the decisions you are about to make.

If this pandemic teaches us nothing else, let it teach us this: we cannot afford to be led by small hearts and weak minds. We must choose and demand proper leaders – those with the calm wisdom, innate empathy and broader outlook that the best of humankind has always shown.

(Sunday Nation, 22 March 2020)

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