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COVID-19 demands resilient leadership: Here’s why

05 June 2020

COVID-19 is clearly a special type of crisis. Knowing just what type can help policymakers, corporate and civil society leaders to respond more effectively. Crawford School of Public Policy Associate Professor Sara Bice explains why and details the characteristics of leadership that research shows can meet the challenge.

We all know what crisis feels like; the gaping sense of uncertainty, tinged by threat and unignorable in its urgency. Crisis concentrates collective attention. It demands leadership and decisiveness but also a tricky combination of humility and confidence. We know these things viscerally. Crisis hits us in the guts, tears us apart, cleaves us together.

The very human nature of crisis, its ready recognisability and commonality, suggests it may be a more emotional than analytical topic. But entire fields of research devote themselves to defining crises, understanding their diverse forms and functions and structuring responses that history and experience tell us will be the most effective for the particular style of challenge faced. At the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy Associate Professor Carolyn Hendriks and I co-coordinate the ‘Cases in Contemporary Public Policy’ course. Our students use up-to-date public policy cases to understand what happens when policy challenges move out of the textbook and into real life. We spend the middle-section of the class devoted to helping our students understand and identify the different types of crises they are likely to face, and the leadership styles demonstrated to be most effective for each. These lessons are perhaps more applicable now than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a transboundary crisis. Understanding it as such is important, as the very nature of this crisis provides us with clues as to the types of leadership responses that are required and that will be most successful in meeting the challenges faced. Research shows that many large, contemporary crises are increasing in their complexity and interconnection. The growth in ‘mega-disasters’ led scholar Kathleen Tierney to proclaim them ‘the new normal’ not so long ago. These transboundary crises are signalled by their crossing of physical, temporal and functional borders, threatening various geographies without a clear beginning or end. Transboundary crises, including COVID-19, facilitate power vacuums, where responsibility for solving the crisis is unclear and where the boundaries of the crisis itself are blurry at best. This situation, particular to transboundary crises, means that their effects are felt for withstanding periods of time.

By understanding COVID-19 as a transboundary crisis, leaders become equipped with a toolkit that draws upon preceding experiences of similar crises, while also recognising the knotty aspects of the pandemic itself. In a very physical transboundary sense, the pandemic has affected an extensive part of the world population, with the virus now reported in all but a handful of countries. The physical spread is complicated by temporal expectations that the pandemic will disrupt societies and organizations for an unpredictable period of time. The pandemic knows no functional boundaries either. It has forced a multitude of governments to declare states of emergency, initiate internal and external border closures and enact travel restrictions more reflective of wartime. It has closed offices, schools and universities, cleared out city centres and locked-down citizens, often at threat of fines or even criminal penalties. The uncertainties wrought by this transboundary crisis are making power vacuums apparent, and are reinforcing existing fault lines in international relationships. Dangerous politicisation of the virus, visible through the United States’ punitive actions toward the WHO, illustrates challenges to taking responsibility for solving the crisis, which is now clearly a matter for mature global cooperation not finger-pointing.

Researchers studying transboundary crises consistently recommend that they be met with ‘resilient’ institutions and leadership. So, what are the qualities of the institutions and leadership styles that research demonstrates are most successful when it comes to tackling transboundary crises? Reams of research advice are available but three key features stand out: • leadership culture • change readiness • networks and relationships.

Leadership culture In less complex times crisis leadership concentrated on preparedness and crisis-avoidance through readiness and regulation. Transboundary crises still demand that leaders are prepared but not as dependent on the two ‘Rs’. Instead, the leadership culture that can respond successfully to the pandemic will be flexible, nimble and humble. Leaders adopting this culture will take a proactive posture informed by situational awareness, while maintaining a willingness to admit mistakes (even failures) and change course. The leadership culture necessary to successful transboundary crisis response prizes thinking outside the box; it creates space for creative thinking, while accepting that many ideas will fail before solutions are found.
Change readiness The leadership culture broadly outlined enables the change readiness crucial to successful management of transboundary crises. This may involve stress testing plans or adopting trial-and-error approaches, in which small moves forward are made and monitored. Decisions to progress are then based on those trial outcomes, with an implicit willingness to redraw and begin again, as the data suggests. Perhaps most importantly, change readiness is underpinned by a clear, shared purpose; one that allows decision-makers to remain collectively focused on revising decisions and actions however necessary to reach their shared goal.

Networks and relationships The above is only possible where networks and relationships are respected, prioritised and leveraged. Leaders must draw upon a variety of knowledge and expertise, including local knowledge, in order to inform decisions and break down silos. Transboundary crises have little respect for such divisions, as their name suggests. Here, internal organisational engagement, whether of public servants or corporate staffers, is just as important as external. It supports decision-making and builds effective external partnerships. It also helps to build in redundancies. Should one organisation or role be unable to fulfil the required tasks, others are able to step-in.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a leadership challenge worthy of a generation, perhaps a lifetime. But as unique as our current crisis is, it is of a type with precedent. And that means we do have the knowledge and capacity to better understand and respond to it. Understanding the COVID-19 pandemic as transboundary crisis points policymakers, private sector and civil society leaders to the riches of resilient leadership. The characteristics of resilient institutions and leadership provide an important and proven approach to moving through and out of transboundary crises. And that is exactly the kind of leadership Australia and the world need right now

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Updated:  29 November 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team