LEADING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC

Jazeela Sherif

Leadership means different things, not only to the leaders but also to their followers. Leading a country to prosperity and peace or out of an economic crisis or out of a long-standing conflict are all undoubtedly great leadership accomplishments. Occasionally, leaders also seem to gain popularity by leading nations into conflicts, sometimes unending ones. Some transformed their nations silently but sustainably, often without much fanbase. But leading through a pandemic such as COVID-19 has been the most challenging times for all these wide variety of leadership styles.

Machismo seems to be the least powerful weapon in the war of humans against coronavirus. A different approach, hitherto uncommon and stark opposite to the strong man – military style of leadership is conspicuously making the world think about alternatives in the wake of the greatest crisis it is going through now. 

A few countries quickly realized that there is a real and unprecedented enemy this time. Their leaders showed exceptional honesty, integrity, compassion, and selfless concern for people’s welfare and acted sufficiently ahead of time, relied on science and consulted the experts, interacted with people, gave them emotional assurances and gained their trust in fighting the invisible.  No accusations, backtracking on policies or gibberish over what they did, but quiet action with much composure. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, for instance, spoke to her people from her home after office hours as if she was like one among them. She, in the very beginning itself, sat with health experts in a social media channel to discuss and dispel some of the myths surrounding COVID-19.

At the same time, we have seen leaders who were eager to call it a hoax, who insinuated their political opponents, showed ‘heroic’ scorn for self-isolation measures (and the virus), announced lockdowns with no planning, suppressed information and remained in constant denial of the true horror of pandemic.

The masculine leadership inventory is populated by qualities like aggressiveness, valor, stubbornness, risk taking, intelligence, smartness, task focus, ego driven and so on, underscoring the dominant use of ‘command and control‘ style.  Assuming every issue to be a war-like scenario and acting like brave warriors, no matter whoever is the adversary or whatever is the obstacle, is a well-accepted leadership style from the times of our war heroes and even among the statesmen of today. However, these qualities seem to be giving way to a more balanced, gender neutral approach these days in the current era of frequent global threats. Somehow, the strategies and actions in controlling the pandemic look better if the intention is genuine and science-based, and the leader is empathetic and communicating honestly with the people. 

Corporate world is also not new to a different set of traits that works in problem solving. Earlier female CEOs had to emulate their men counterparts for getting acceptance, but slowly and steadily, possibly being exhausted of masking their real self, they moved through the path of least resistance, applying their inherent qualities in leading, problem solving and managing people.  Adjectives such as ‘she is the only man here’ or ‘she leads like a man’ are becoming out of place in today’s corporate world.

Leading print media such as New York Times, The Guardian and Bloomberg wrote that women have been better leaders than men during the current global pandemic. A research finding appeared in https://theconversation.com indicated that in women-led countries – New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Finland, the respective leaders have taken a different approach characterized by qualities like empathy, compassion, consultation and interaction in tackling the pandemic.

 “Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility are the common features of the success of these women leaders.”

Supporting a similar argument, an article titled “The reason why female leaders are excelling at managing the coronavirus” appeared in the World Economic Forum website stated that resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility are the common features of the success of these women leaders.  The article added that in this new type of leadership, participation of everyone’s intelligence becomes the key to success.

Many qualities, traditionally perceived to be beneficial in those jobs that demand a motherly touch have found to be working in managing the current global health crisis.  All of them locked down much earlier than their counter parts in advanced countries. This could be viewed as risk aversion, a female trait, and quite a safe and straightforward step, in contrast with the rather calculated priorities the male leaders had at the same time.  It is not that these women had the foresight, a vision of the aftermath, derived from any complex process of thinking. Mostly, the decisiveness in taking proactive policies came from a participatory and consultative style of functioning which may not be in the usual nature of masculine ways of leadership.

Angela Merkel of Germany, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Sanna Marin of Finland have suddenly caught academic attention on account of the way they addressed the issue and took their people into confidence.   The extent of outbreak and death rate in these places were much lower when compared to similar countries chosen for comparison in the study referred above. 

It may be too soon to draw conclusions since the pandemic is far from over. We have only a handful of smart women leaders to draw these comparisons.  A big sample might consist of all sorts of personalities and contexts.  However, by now, we see a clear trend that the world is taking a serious note of the outcomes and the women who were responsible.

Only ten per cent of world leaders are women, a gross under representation, in a male centric domain that reluctantly let the women break the glass ceiling. More studies may reveal why these countries had chosen females for the top posts. Overall societal outlook, a more egalitarian view on equality and freedom that values merit could have played a part as well, in which case, there is  much more to look forward to in the future from these leaders and their countries alike – a new normal, a more inclusive  and collaborative leadership style or styles, must be slowly evolving, for a more responsible and sustainable world.

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