Pandemic Xray on Leadership

X-ray showing a covid heart.

Changes across every level

Across the world at every level of government, business, and key professions, leaders are in a spotlight in a world of more quiet and measured attention by the populace. The din and roar of activity on less than essential activities give way to a sobering focus on critical priorities. Leadership is no longer a matter of keeping up with routine activities, meetings, and deadlines; it is now about figuring out how to make the right decisions affecting many people’s lives and livelihoods in an almost completely uncertain context. This is a context in which knowledge, while essential, is clearly not enough. What is also required is wisdom and the courage to act in the face of huge stakes and what we cannot possibly know with certainty.

A closer look at pandemic leadership

As such, these pandemic times offer us an opportunity for leadership learning that is rare. What are some of the fundamental principles that we can see exemplified in pandemic leadership? Here, let’s consider the practices of national leaders whom we have all been observing. Margaret Macmillan, a celebrated Canadian historian, reflected on the wide range of leadership performance we have seen in the past few months in the Globe and Mail, opinion section, May 9, 2020  “Making history: How a pandemic took the world by surprise”. She looked first to several of the most successful national leaders in limiting the spread of the disease, whom Macmillan suggests are trusted by their people—Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. “Democracies can only go the route of severe restrictions on society if – and this is crucial – their citizens trust the authorities and the politicians. …The two leaders speak bluntly and are open about the dangers and challenges in the future,” says Macmillan. We are fortunate that, as she observes “…Canadians tend to trust their governments and, except for a fringe of the willfully deluded, tend to have confidence in the medical profession.” Macmillan goes on to say that authoritarian regimes like China can implement what we could consider extreme controls but, ultimately, they must coerce everyone to achieve compliance. Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer of BC, demonstrated how a leader uses control without losing trust—namely, very reluctantly and as a last resort in service of the demonstrable greater good. She acknowledged that she agonized over recommending limits to the rights of citizens and consistently demonstrated that her sole only purpose was to protect lives.

Canada's governments getting good grades

Indeed, governments across all jurisdictions in Canada have received ‘high marks’ from Canadians in their handling of the pandemic. The Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked levels of trust across four sectors—business, government, NGOs, and media—annually across the world with their reports appearing annually in January. This year they have run what they call Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Canadian Findings, and the results are astonishing. While government ranked last in trust ratings across sectors in January, it now ranks first.

Edelman Trust Index Spring 2020 update showing an increase in trust in government.

Demonstrated consistent dedication of leaders to delivering personal safety, essential services, and economic support—the greater good—and the absence of self-serving behaviour such as political and economic advantage—are likely to have been the winning combination.

‘Getting it right’ also involves collaboration which, in turn, is founded on agreement about synching respective authorities, resources, capabilities, and responsibilities. In Canada, to date all levels of government are stepping up in relevant and mutually supportive ways. Provincial and municipal governments with their authority over health, education, legislation, and law enforcement, and municipal authorities on transportation, business, and public venues have enacted measures complementary to those of the federal government with a remarkable absence of friction. Canadian military medical staff from across the country have been deployed in Québec long term care homes overwhelmed by the virus. Collaboration across sectors has occurred—businesses producing protective gear for health professionals without coercion, governments supporting businesses and their employees, civil sector sometimes with business launching special funds and providing direct service to especially disadvantaged citizens, and national media have maintained continuous programming featuring government and health sector communication to the public. All sectors have been meeting expectations of the public as reflected in increased levels of trust by the public.

How not to lead in a pandemic

A final critical element in strong pandemic leadership is reliable communication with the public that is updated regularly. As Margaret Macmillan observed above, communication is very clear and truthful especially about what some might find difficult to hear. 

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to observe leaders across the world dealing with the same high stakes challenge under an intense spotlight. We can see and learn or affirm what elements of leadership foster success and those that do not. While the choice here is not to dwell on ‘how not to lead in a pandemic’, the examples around us provide a stark contrast to successful leadership—ambiguous if not dishonest communication, delayed if not broken promises, off-loaded responsibilities, confusion, and attempts to divert attention and blame toward others. The much more quiet life of this pandemic may enable us to eliminate distractions and become clear on what matters most in leadership that delivers value—even life and livelihoods. We are only at the beginning of this extraordinary episode in our lives—let’s make it a learning place.