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Covid-19 - A Test of Leadership -Mathew C. Ninan

Published On : 09 May 2020

Covid – 19 has been a nightmare to the leaders of the different countries. It’s not just because Boris Johnson got infected. It’s because these leaders are at a loss about how to get their acts together. Most of them are fair-weather leaders. They might be good manipulators, past-masters in the art of wheeling and dealing, but this one is a different ball-game altogether. Glib talk will just not click.

Leaders all over the world spend sleepless nights now, because they know that the people are watching them closely. Like the emperor’s new clothes, most of them just have no clue about what they are wearing. Not many among their countrymen have the gumption to say loudly that the new clothes they are wearing actually reveal more than what they are trying to conceal. It was a child in the story of Hans Anderson (The Emperor’s New Clothes) who shouted out the truth - "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

With every public appearance, some of them are repeatedly telling the world how they are not fit to be in leadership.

In other words, they are showing what leadership is not. Their utterances, their body language, and the logic or absence of logic they propound in their decisions are all clear manifestations of their inner quality. The authenticity of a leader is best displayed during a crisis like this. The hollowness or shallowness of a leader also gets revealed in such a situation.

The present virus-crisis is a perfect case-study for management students. Corona is a metaphor for unseasonal crisis that tests the leadership calibre of leaders. What are the facets of leadership that are revealed or absent in leadership in the world arena today?

Leadership is about leading from the front: Some leaders are missing in action. They wake up too late. They seem to believe that a problem will go away if you wait patiently. Or like one of our former Prime Ministers famously said, indecision also is a decision. Leadership at a critical period should be seen, and heard. The confidence of the leader is the one fuel that the followers need the most.

Leadership is about democratic decision-making: Decisions have to be made after analysing the problem from all possible angles.

That is seeing things in perspective. This also requires team-work. Two heads are always better than one. In some countries, it’s obvious that decisions were made by one single individual. Such whimsical decisions by one person without a thorough understanding of the ground realities end up as a colossal blunder. Some countries have done exactly this. They made knee-jerk decisions which were either too rash or too slow or too little.

Leadership is about collaboration: We live at a time when collaborative or shared leadership is the most acceptable form of leadership. Top-down management style is a thing of the past. Leaders need to consult their trusted top-management group, representing critical areas needed in crisis management. This team must be able to anticipate the aftermath of every major decision, and how they have to be tackled. The logistics must be mapped out and action-plans must be readied. Wherever leaders take unilateral decisions, bypassing discussion and consultation, these processes will all be bypassed, giving rise to a host of problems in implementation and contradictory voices.

Leadership is about consistency: Usual laissez faire approach is absolutely unacceptable in a crisis situation.

In a crisis, well-considered decisions must be made and every decision must be followed through, by commissioning a core group of absolutely dedicated and capable officials with impeccable record to implement the decisions. Time is of the essence in a crisis. There is no place for dilly-dallying, dithering and inertia.

Leadership is about results and conviction: Good results create better performance. The credibility of leaders is evident when results speak for themselves. Leaders without substance fumble and falter when a crisis surfaces. Effective leaders prove themselves to be emergent leaders. They assume front-line position almost by instinct and exude a level of confidence that is all- pervasive and contagious that the entire team gets energized and reinvigorated from time to time. Keeping the morale of one’s team and one’s countrymen is the foremost responsibility of a leader. This is exactly what some world leaders did, and this is exactly what some others could not achieve.

Leadership is about empathy for the poor: The empathy that a good leader should feel and experience with one’s citizenry will be most evident in decision-making. The best definition for this is given by no less a person than the father of our nation. In the words of Gandhiji, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him”.

During the Covid 19 pandemic, we found leaders of different nations in action. After the dust settles, and things become normal, hopefully, we will leisurely look at them closely. A dispassionate study will reveal how effective or ineffective these leaders have been. Some might come out with flying colours, while some who were humming and hawing might cut a sorry figure. While some rose in stature with their well-calculated and decisive steps, some others plummeted, betraying their megalomaniac tendencies and faulty decisions, or indecisions, unabashedly. The difference will be too transparent for the world to ignore.

Posterity will assess these leaders for what they are worth. It’s not going to be palatable for those of them who were proud of their ‘new clothes’ as in the story. Some of them were not actually wearing much, and were exposing a lot.

(The writer is Director, Little Rock Institute of Educational Leadership, Udupi)

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