For many leaders across the world, the hour has come with the Covid-19 outbreak threatening millions of lives across the globe unless swift, concerted action is taken. Besides the obvious problem of selecting the correct path to take, leaders also face the monumental task of reassuring the public and persuading them to follow through on certain measures like social distancing. A wrong move could erode trust and unleash unrest that could exacerbate the existing dangers. It remains to be seen whether our leaders will rise to the occasion with the appropriate response. When it comes to taking action, the leaders need to judge exactly how much they can rely on individual co-operation through persuasion and when they need to cross over into rigid command and control. Yet it is often the contents of the leader’s messaging that may ultimately determine public trust. Instead, the leaders need to craft a good narrative that helps clarify the problem and unite the population if they are to attain the permissive consensus that is essential to be able to make decisions and formulate policies.
Anyone who is a leader during this humanitarian and economic crisis, he is being tested as never before. There are also leaders who are rising to the challenge. Society also needs its business leaders to show boundless ingenuity and compassion. There is, of course, much more to a leader’s responses than his or her speeches. Leaders should, for instance, offer a rapid recognition of danger and ideally the necessary infrastructure and procedures should already be in place to quickly gather data once the crisis has hit. There is also the tendency to sugar-coat the situation. Leaders should be open about the evolving nature of the problem, avoiding a paternalistic sense of children that need to be shielded from bad news and instead treat public as adults. Without that openness, the public can quickly sense deception, reducing the credibility of the government and trust in their policies.
South Korea’s rapid response is an exemplary demonstration of the principles of effective crisis management. The country had apparently started to stockpile testing kits long before the outbreak had occurred. The country allowed testing of 10,000 people a day when the infection rate started to climb, and a mobile app kept citizens constantly updated with the evolving situation. The nation had already established the infrastructure for “sense making” of the situation. The public were primed, from the very beginning, to see the outbreak as a national emergency, with regular television broadcasts and subway announcements reminding citizens of the danger.
The first behavior shift of a leader is vulnerability. It has struck fear into the hearts of many leaders, but in a crisis, we need leaders who are brave enough in order to show care. This is not a time for invincibility. In the face of Covid-19, none of us is invincible. We need leaders who will dare to be vulnerable and show just how much they care. The second behavioral shift is from doing or knowing to being. In the face of a crisis, the natural reaction from leaders is to look as if we are in control. We see leaders wanting to know more and gathering ever more data. In the moments of crisis, what states need most is to feel the presence and very essence of their leaders.
The third behavior shift is engaging purpose. Today, so many of us are seeing the energy, vitality, and ingenuity that comes from being purpose-led. We are seeing leaders and whole organizations embracing the challenge to meet society’s needs right now on the frontline of battling COVID-19. Leaders need to own purpose, during and long after the crisis.
Often leaders sometimes underestimate the effect of their own words, especially the [effects of] things they don't say as well as the things they do say. While many agree that the content of the political message can often be more important than the actual decision making – at least as far as public approval and trust go. It involves appealing to collective values and a collective history, emphasizing society at large rather than individual self-interest.
Acknowledging the uncertainty will only improve leaders' credibility. All are longing for positive message but we will not believe the positive messages if the leader is not transparent about the negative part. People want the leader to project compassion and an understanding of how the situation is for those concerned and to project the hope that together we can manage the crisis.
Author is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B. N. Mandal University, Bihar