What COVID-19 Taught Us About Leadership

When the sun is shining, and the birds are tweeting, leadership matters little. Put any warm body in there and the ship might sail for a long time – perfectly straight that is.

…until there is a storm. COVID-19 is one of those storms.

A Conspiracy Theorist Behind Every Tree…

The date is early April 2020 and a friend of mine has just posted a lengthy article on Facebook about how 5G is causing the spread of COVID-19, including an in-depth “scientific” explanation. We get into a debate…

As it so happens, I’m an electronic engineer by trade, specialising in telecommunications – of all the people my friend could have tangled with, she picked wrong one (or right one, depending how one looks at it). So I patiently gave her a cellular 101 course. She said that she got it, thanked me and we went on our merry way. This is a true story, and it is an exception.

We now know that conspiracy theorists have deeply-held worldviews, including that the government (typically the US government) are engaged in all manner of plots to manipulate/fool/harm the citizenry. Ironically, conspiracy theorists love the term “be careful what you believe”, while not being very careful about what they believe.

We have learned that humans are surprisingly prone to believing in conspiracy theories, and it is not benign. Meanwhile, not a single major scandal has ever been exposed by conspiracy theorists. Real conspiracies do exist, but they are typically exposed by solid journalism, state-sponsored inquiries, and whistle-blowers.

The first year of the pandemic saw major countries such as the USA and Brazil led by politicians with a notable disdain for facts – the results speak for themselves. Statements like “15 cases and it will be zero soon” and “just a little flu” led to all the wrong behaviours that quickly collided with the mathematical reality of a mutating, highly contagious virus.

Real leaders have a determination to seek the facts, are more likely to rely on experts, and are passionate about telling people the truth.

Responding to Risk

In 2014, Bill Gates gave a TED talk which essentially predicted the pandemic and laid out exactly what needed to be done to prepare – see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Af6b_wyiwI

We knew, yet we did nothing – why? Because humans have not evolved to respond to hypothetical risks that they have not experienced or seen themselves. It’s the same reason that most people reading this article don’t have an earthquake kit at home for the coming big one (they will have one the day after though, when they won’t need it for another 20 generations…).

Coming back to COVID-19, in Trump’s own words: “It’s something that nobody expected” (14 March 2020).

But Bill Gates expected it, and he was not alone. Bill gates is a software programmer and entrepreneur, not a epidemiologist. He expected it not only because he is after the facts and knows who to trust, but because he fundamentally understands risk. Take a look at Bill’s life and you will see that he is a leader in every way.

Nobody has a crystal ball and the future will always be ambiguous, but real leaders are constantly assessing risk and taking appropriate steps to mitigate it. Not to spoil your day, but the experts are now pointing out that the nature of humanity’s continued interaction with animals (domestic and wild/bushmeat) for food combined with the speed of global travel is already priming us for the next pandemic.

In the face of a population eager to go back to business as usual, we will need leadership.

Which brings me to my final point…

The Short Term vs. the Long Term

Our country is awash with calls to “open up the economy”, and we are even seeing mass protests from people who are tired of being locked down or feel the damage to the economy is too great. Every time case numbers have dropped the authorities (pressed by the public) have responded by “opening up”, leading to the next wave.

Meanwhile countries such Australia, New Zealand (democracies) and China (autocracy) took a different approach. When they had even one case in an area they would lock down, trace and isolate. Then, after the outbreak was 100% eliminated they were able to go about their business as usual until the next one. The result was that they required far less social isolation and experienced far less economic damage, not more.

Humans have a strong tendency to favour the short term over the long term. Reacting is often easier than proacting, but leaders who continually fall into this trap face a real risk of poor and even disastrous outcomes. Real leaders are persistently focused on the long term, adjusting their vision as new information emerges.

In summary…

No matter how charismatic or influential you might be, no matter how good you might be with people, it will amount to nothing unless you are also a strategist. Being a strategist requires:

  • A persistent focus on the long-term.
  • A savvy approach to risk.
  • A determination to seek the facts.

Kwela facilitates workshops on Critical Thinking and Being Strategic, both aimed at helping leaders develop the strategic competency.

Russel Horwitz, Principal