Leadership and Our Most Powerful Tool in a Time of Crisis

Originally Published in Fair Value

The Coronavirus Pandemic is a crisis in a form we haven’t seen for generations-not only because of the scale of mortality (which is unbearably tragic, yet hopefully less than many military conflicts) but because of its global nature, its stealthy attributes, our wretched ability to control its spread, and perhaps most of all, the rude awakening that there are limits to the power of human ingenuity in the face of unrestrained nature.

For all our scientific progress, the justified response of the developed world has essentially been little different from medieval times-isolate, wash your hands, and be wary of strangers. Making matters worse, the entangled nature of modern society means these tactics are harder to achieve than in centuries past. But if there is any light in this dark hour, it is surely in our vastly greater potential to communicate and marshal our actions in a coordinated and steadfast manner. In this respect, leadership is arguably our most powerful tool in tackling the tasks that lie ahead.

What is a Crisis?

A crisis is defined as a moment of intense difficulty or danger, a situation when critical decisions must be made. Specifically, it is a time of turning points when the actions we choose will steer us to either recovery or disaster. Leadership in these circumstances requires more than bravado or gesture politics; it needs a cool head, an ability to take others with us, and a clarity of purpose as well as strength and consistency of will. The internet-especially social media, is currently awash with advice, often with a heavy emphasis on historical examples. To use Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s phrase, the Coronavirus is a Black Swan event if we look at the specifics of our situation, there are precious few parallels to draw on. 

3 Principles of Leadership Always Apply

Direct history lessons are not especially helpful, but the principles of good leadership still apply: 

  • Willingness to listen and learn, 
  • Focus on the common good,
  • Clarity and consistency in our messaging

COVID Made Leadership Shine

All of us recognize these qualities because, in the current circumstances, we are looking for them in our politicians and influencers-just as we can sense the division that’s sown by some of the more closed, partisan, and vastly incoherent responses we’ve witnessed.

The challenge for leaders is that in this moment of greatest uncertainty, the need to set aside political considerations, to apply measures that have proven to be successful elsewhere and provide clarity of purpose and direction is more essential than ever.

Bertand Russell and Crisis Management 

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that in such circumstances- when the facts and outcomes are at their most opaque, we must focus on the best evidence and reasoning we have, however imperfect it may be. And critically, we must then be resolute until, and unless, new evidence suggests otherwise. Russell was talking more about intellectual ideas than crisis management, but his point is still relevant. 

Leadership Can’t Please Everyone

Leadership, almost by definition, will never please all parties, nor is it intended to. There will always be differences of opinion as to the route we could take—and these should be considered carefully. There comes a point when a path must be chosen. A leader is someone who forges rather than seeks consensus, as Martin Luther King Jr. is attributed with noting. And ideally, that consensus should help to shape our actions beyond the immediate hiatus. 

Taleb’s Black Swan Event

For in returning to the definition of a Black Swan event, our world will necessarily be different once the crisis has passed. Think of the various responses to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and how the decisions which followed have impacted those countries. The contrast between the outcome of the bold action taken by Germany in uniting its country is in stark contrast to the grim realities of many former Soviet states.

SARS Affected How Countries Acted

In drawing lessons from the past-albeit tangential in their nature-it is relevant that Germany acted with speed as well as clarity of vision. And in returning to the present, it is undoubtedly significant that those countries with direct experience in containing the SARS virus have taken some of the strictest and most immediate of measures. Proactively focusing on containment and slowing the spread. In contrast, contemplate the graphs of infection levels and mortality peaks in those countries where it quickly became too late to follow their lead.

Judge Leaders By Results, Not Rhetoric

While I regret that many of us are still in stark denial about the severity of what we have experienced and what may still lie ahead, nonetheless, we will get through this crisis and, in time, assess its consequences with the benefit of hindsight. Ultimately, I suspect and hope we will judge our leaders by their results more than their rhetoric. Meanwhile, it’s vital that we, all of us, hold onto something less tangible but no less vital for what’s to come, that is, hope. For it is our collective belief in a brighter future that most drives and sustains all of human progress. And, at this perilous time, that is perhaps the most powerful tool of all.