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Leading in and out of the crisis

18 May 2020

Society faces some stark choices about how to recover from the coronavirus crisis. So how do we ensure that we have the leaders we need? Helen Sullivan looks at the characteristics of great leaders and how public policy schools can help leaders shape a better future.

What does it mean to lead well in a world facing an unprecedented crisis that threatens our established ways of living – politically, socially, culturally and economically? COVID-19 is generating plenty of evidence but there is as much to dismay as to delight public policy watchers. Public policy schools can draw on their existing knowledge and current practices to curate what makes for capable, compassionate leaders able to shape a sustainable future.

COVID-19 is disrupting public policy orthodoxies. Neoliberalism in particular may have had its day. And the limits of globalisation have been thrown into sharp relief. Somewhat to our surprise we have rediscovered the value of state capacity and a robust public sector.

In response we are witnessing two dominant kinds of leadership – resilient and reckless.

Resilient leaders, usually women, have earned plaudits globally for their approach. They combine competence and self-confidence with empathy and humility to devastating effect. They work collaboratively across parties, and in coalition (see for example, Finland), draw on established institutions, and listen to expertise. They also use their personal styles to develop powerful narratives about the pandemic that connect the local experience with that of the rest of the world.

By combining their ability to communicate and connect authentically with a solid reliance on evidence and expertise, we observe good decisions being made, these decisions being accepted, and public confidence growing.

For resilient leaders the ‘what’s next?’ question is crucial in a context where we have to reimagine how to organise our economies and societies. Working out how to answer that question is as important as what the answers might be, as retaining public confidence in the move from crisis to recovery is essential if future policy settings are to be accepted.

The other dominant leadership approach preceded COVID-19 but is amplified by it; the resurgence of the ‘strongman’ leader – and yes, it is nearly always a man. One variant of this is almost entirely reckless. It is leadership that thrives on identifying enemies, is suspicious of experts, and trashes institutions that get in the way.

President Trump is the obvious example, but the list is longer than one might hope, and includes others with global sway. These leaders don’t worry about the ‘what’s next’ question; their success rests on their certainty about how they will shape the future and their ability to use evidence in ways that aligns with the world views of their supporters.

Our contemporary condition of polarised politics, digital misinformation, and a fragile trust relationship between citizens and their governments is fertile ground for reckless leaders.

And it’s not just in politics; they flourish in the corporate world, in bureaucracies, and in civil society. Countering this is challenging but public policy schools are well placed to respond through their engagement with future leaders in their research and education programs.

So, what might be the basis for successful resilient rather than reckless leadership?

Firstly, a commitment to ethical leadership. The integrity of our leaders and their institutions is essential to rebuild public trust and confidence. The ethical foundation for leadership will, of course, vary depending on context and tradition but consideration of the ethical positions of ‘doing good, doing what’s right, and/or being good’ are likely to feature.

An immediate challenge for leaders will be how they respond to the old adage ‘never waste a good crisis’. Certainly, there are opportunities for radical change that may be acted upon for the longer term, and ethical leaders will pursue these with appropriate respect for the dignity and rights of followers.

This is in stark contrast to leaders who seize the opportunity to push through ‘reforms’ as a means of securing their position or advancing their careers.

Second, slow down. Crisis situations demand that leaders act quickly and decisively. Dealing with the ‘what’s next’ question requires deeper and more measured thinking, particularly when old remedies are unlikely to work. However, the 24-hour media cycle and the accelerated pace of change have pressured policymakers to respond and valorised initiatives such as ‘fast policy’.

Now might be the moment to tradeoff speed for substance. Public policy schools’ capacity for translating deep research into usable findings is a ready source of substance.

Third, seek out alternative views. Humility remains a strength not a weakness in uncertain contexts. While crisis situations can require more directive leadership limiting the space for contrary voices, the move from crisis to recovery is an opportunity for leaders to proactively embrace diverse views, to challenge assumptions, test options and improve future plans.

This exposes leaders to insights from others’ social worlds. That includes, as Professor Owen Flanagan discusses in The Geography of Morals, the different moral philosophies that guide action. Public policy schools are notable for bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, and with multiple perspectives, to learn with and from each other.

Fourth, match expertise with compassion. Overcoming the bitter divisions that exist between communities, and in some cases between the people and their representatives, will not be achieved by anyone ‘knowing more’. Rather leaders need to seek out and listen to the views and experiences of those who believe the system has failed them, and then act on that empathy to improve people’s lives. Public policy schools’ multi-disciplinary faculty enable these different skill sets to be developed.

Finally, lead as yourself. Successful leaders work with their strengths to cultivate confidence and trust in their leadership. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s relaxed, family-oriented, decidedly normal style, including press conferences that include coverage of the ‘Easter Bunny’ as an essential worker – albeit one with little bunnies of their own to look after – is a case in point. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sober assessments and explanations of the science of the virus and how it works are effective because she is a trained scientist as well as an empathetic politician.

There are big questions ahead for society, and the solutions chosen will impact all of our lives for perhaps decades to come. Finding the right answers will require having the right kind of leaders. Public policy schools can help leaders identify and build on their strengths, as well as address their limitations, and in doing so build resilience and discourage recklessness.

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