It’s time to get real: Leadership lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted on August 06, 2020

As a management professor, I have traditionally taught my students that crises require leadership that’s decisive, confident, and even authoritarian. But I’m thinking twice about that now – and that maybe it’s time to rewrite those textbooks. The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing that the leaders who are “winning” the war against the virus and the hearts and minds of followers are not the blustering, direct-now-and-think-later leaders of the pre-pocalypse. The leaders who are winning during the pandemic are the ones who are getting real. That’s right. The winners are the ones who can admit that they don’t have all the answers, the ones who are coming “around the podium” to allow us to glimpse their humanity.

Traditionally, I’ve taught MBA students that what’s needed in a crisis like today’s pandemic are authoritarian leaders who expect obedience and unity, and who have centralised decision-making. The evidence shows that this is the way companies and governments can operate efficiently and take decisive action. Yet, today, the authoritarian leaders across the world are not the ones whose leadership is praised, nor, according to death and infection rates, does it seem to be working. Take US President Donald Trump. Despite his very confident, consistent claims that he has matters at hand and that America is “winning” the war on COVID-19, his approval rates are declining while infection rates are climbing.

On the other hand, there’s New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The Atlantic recently declared she may be the most effective leader on the planet today. And it’s not for her authoritarian handling of the pandemic, but rather, quite simply, her empathy. She appeals to her constituents not as their leader, but instead dressed in a sweatshirt, as a fellow parent getting ready to put her child to bed. And on 8 June, when asked how she reacted to believing the virus had been eradicated in New Zealand, she professed, “I did a little dance.” Perhaps old-school leadership rules would judge that reaction as undignified, but, in contrast, that very human response resonated with people the world over.

The COVID-19 crisis has flipped leadership rules on their head. The virus is new, and a mystery to scientists, public health experts and administrators, and government leaders, and we are learning as we go. The leadership losers are proving to be the ones who pretend to have it all under control despite the lack of information. Those are the leaders dismissing the science to instead lead according to hunches and political whims. The winners are those who are admitting the failings of existing information and making and revising and re-revising plans, choosing instead to be humble, and to operate in learning mode. Trump fits the first category, but also in the US, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged in the second category: humble, practical, and honest, admitting fear and fallibility.

Authentic leadership is what we seem to be craving in these times. Respected business management scholars once advocated that what society needed in response to the “swirling negativity of the 2002 failure of the dotcoms” was authentic leadership – leadership that is genuine, trustworthy, and real. And that is what we are seeing today. Authentic leaders know who they are and lead based on their true values, but are conscious of and transparent about their own vulnerabilities. The pandemic is exposing the need for authentic, humble leadership. Like us, leaders are figuring the virus and its necessary precautions out as the evidence becomes available, and authentic leaders are not ashamed to admit it.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been criticised for being stiff, formal and even pretentious in his pandemic speeches to the nation, but we have glimpsed vestiges of authenticity. On 23 April, at the conclusion of his national address, he fumbled with a face mask, when attempting to demonstrate the importance of wearing one. While that too drew criticism, another viewpoint is that it demonstrated his humanity and vulnerability. The man behind the blue power suit is a person like all of us, trying to get used to wearing a face mask for the first time. 

The pandemic lesson for leaders is that your constituents can see through bluster and overconfidence. We want authenticity. “It’s time to get real.”

Professor Jenny M Hoobler is a Management Professor in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria.  She’s taught organisational behavior and published research on leadership, especially in the areas of gender and diversity, for over 20 years.

An edited version of this article appeared in Business Day on 02 August 2020.

- Author Professor Jenny M Hoobler

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