American author James Lane Allen famously said, “Crisis does not build character, it reveals it.” It also, as has been shown by some of the world’s leaders during the Coronavirus crisis, reveals a lack of it!
It is, of course, easy to bash the crisis leadership shown by some (and there is sadly no shortage of examples where it’s absolutely appropriate to do so). But we also need to understand that leading effectively right now, in the middle of a global health and economic crisis the likes of which we have never previously experienced, is no picnic.
But what does high quality crisis leadership actually look like?
Retired Lt. General Nadja West, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command, and now at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Centre for Public Leadership, says, “leadership is the process of influencing people by providing direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organisation. During good times, you have to establish trust, then it’s easier to ask people to do things when there’s a crisis.”
American writer David Foster Wallace called real leaders “people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness, selfishness, weakness and fear, and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
The coronavirus pandemic is placing unprecedented demands on political and business leaders. Many are calling the outbreak a “landscape scale” crisis, which is, as described by Herman Leonard and Arnold Howitt in their paper High Performance in Emergency Preparedness and Response: Disaster Type Differences, “an unexpected event or sequence of events of enormous scale and overwhelming speed, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance.”
A better description of our current situation you could not wish to find.
It is clearly a time when we are all hungry for strong, decisive yet compassionate leadership. Sadly, some of the world’s leaders have let us down badly at a time when we needed them the most:
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister
South Africa has stricter lockdown laws than many other countries, but for the most part, we are being good citizens. We stick to the rules, only go out when absolutely essential, and only buy the very basics of what we need. We don’t see our friends or our families unless they live with us.
Unless, of course, you happen to be Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Our esteemed minister thought it was no problem to break lockdown and attend a lovely lunch at a friend’s house. Unfortunately for her, her host, ANC national executive committee member Mduduzi Manana, posted pictures of the lunch gathering on social media.
Despite her apology and being put on two months’ “special leave,” the incident has left a very bad taste in a lot of South Africans’ mouths.
Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer
Dr Calderwood ignored her own advice and made not one, but two trips to her second home – an hour’s drive from her primary residence – during the Coronavirus lockdown in the United Kingdom. During her first trip, she was spied by a photographer from the Scottish Sun newspaper, and subsequently received a warning from the police. This did not deter her from making a second trip to the same house with her family a couple of weekends later.
Despite Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying that Calderwood had made a mistake but should stay in her job, the public outcry was too great. People were understandably outraged when the same women who had appeared on numerous radio and television ads urging the public to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives, brazenly flouted lockdown on two occasions. Dr Calderwood has now resigned from her post.
In the book Leading Consciously, Debashis Chatterjee writes, “The credibility of a leader [comes from more] than his or her words. Credibility comes from character. If a leader demonstrates consistency in the smallest of actions, he or she is likely to demonstrate this consistency in larger actions. Credibility of large magnitude comes from credibility in small actions.”
Take note, the Ndabeni-Abrahams and Calderwoods of the world.
Fortunately, we also have notable examples of good leadership in a crisis, one of which is our very own President.
President Cyril Ramaphosa
Although it’s true that, “one swallow does not a summer make,” President Ramaphosa’s response to the Covid pandemic has been applauded both within South Africa and internationally.
Professor Mcedisi Ndletyana, Political Analyst from the University of Johannesburg, said, “I would have hoped the President would have led like this for the past two years and not waited for a catastrophe of this kind to provide stern and decisive leadership. But President Ramaphosa has been decisive in closing borders and instituting a national shutdown. If this boldness and decisiveness stays with us, this President could do very well.”
Lt. General Fabian Zakes Msimang, Chief of the South African Air Force
Although not directly involved in the Coronavirus response, Lt General Msimang gave an inspiring speech on leadership to graduates of the University of South Africa in Tshwane in December last year.
He said, “I suggest and emphasise that all academic studies should include subjects of ethics, psychology and accountability as compulsory modules. Intelligence and academic excellence without a moral compass is a dangerous use of resources. Let us prize integrated public servanthood and ethical leadership in both the private and public sectors. Moral standing is as valuable as oxygen.”
We couldn’t agree more!
When the Coronavirus pandemic is finally under control and the dust clears, we’ll have a much clearer picture of the way in which our global leaders actually navigated the crisis. We’ll also see who displayed truly great leadership and who was found woefully lacking. This will be the stage when strong leaders will admit any mistakes they might have made, and create workable plans for how things will work going forward. Weak leaders will be more concerned with covering up or justifying their mistakes, and will miss out on a valuable chance to win back lost support.
Paul Ntokozo Buhali, 1st Senior investigator at the South African Post Office, believes leaders should be taking steps now to mitigate the effects of any fraud, theft and corruption occurring during the Covid-19 lockdown that will inevitably come to light in post-pandemic audits. He offers these suggestions:
- Exercise a zero-tolerance approach towards unethical behaviour.
- Set out the responsibilities of management, supervisors, employees and other stakeholders pertaining to the prevention of acts of criminality, dishonesty and other misconduct.
- Re-enforce accountability duly vested in management and supervisory personnel to ensure compliance according to the legislation, policies and procedures in the various departments for which they are responsible.
- Establish a confidential platform for reporting criminal activities and identifying the culprits (wrongdoers).
- Implement a control process within that specific environment that is responsible for accountability.
- All implemented processes should be cost effective and be within the set procurement processes.
At the end of the day, good leadership will always be good leadership. It may take a crisis to reveal it, but when all is said and done, it really does come down to character.
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Please take care, and look after yourself and your loved ones.