We're living through a time when the gulf between good and bad leadership is on display in a public, undeniable way, with consequences affecting not only individual countries but the entire world in short order. National leadership now comes with a performance metric in cases and lives lost, and it is merciless.
Here in Canada, we've seen various levels of government put aside their differences in order to collaborate on a coherent response. After some initial complacency, we've seen the response tighten quickly, and frequent, clear communication from federal and provincial leaders. Everyone understands that partisan bickering is on hold for the duration.
Meanwhile, the petri dish south of the border saw the issue immediately politicized. First came the blatant denials and conspiracy theories, then prioritization of the economy over human life, and now even social distancing has become a political issue. As a result, the United States is now home to just under a quarter of the world's infections, and it will only get worse.
The most impressive performance during this time undoubtedly goes to countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which were already prepared as a result of previous scares - SARS and MERS.
The following brief summary of the leadership lessons of COVID-19 may seem obvious... but clearly, it's not yet obvious enough.
Don't censor bad news, punish whistleblowers or distort statistics. You're only shooting yourself in the foot.
Admit mistakes quickly and correct them. Very few countries were properly prepared, and those that were had faced serious epidemic scares in recent memory.
Put aside politics. If you can't come together on the need to save lives, when can you?
Public health is a collective issue requiring collective action, just like a war of national survival. Libertarianism has no place in it. As the great individualist John Stuart Mill put it, "Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights." Foremost among those rights is life.
None of the above is an excuse for using this emergency to implement authoritarian measures beyond what the emergency requires.
Measures to limit economic damage must start with at-risk employees, the self-employed and small businesses with narrow margins.
Those measures must be clear, accessible and consistent, something that Canada for one has so far struggled to do.
At-risk workers, not only in healthcare but in necessary service jobs, need to have measures in place to protect their health and that of the people they interact with, and it must be properly resourced and enforced.
A situation like this rewards advance planning. Emergency management without a plan and proper resources is usually disastrous. The human tendency to develop the political will to prepare the moment after we realize it's too late is extremely costly.
The role of politicians in these situations is to communicate and reassure the public, while following the best professional advice and drafting legislation required to deal with the situation. It is not to dictate the response, or worse, politicize it. They have neither the experience nor the training to be competent to do so.
Close borders to nonessential crossings where necessary, but don't try to pinch other people's resources. This is a time to build each other up rather than tearing each other down... and inevitably, we all need things that other people can produce. This is a very bad time for trade wars. Selfish actors will be punished.
This postmortem on the Italian situation highlights some more challenges leaders will need to overcome... especially in terms of adapting to do what works and discarding ineffective mindsets.
The Big Picture
This unprecedented disruption of our global systems has become possible because of our global systems. We are a society that travels more than any in history, and therefore we can spread contagion faster than any society in history. We can either become much more effective in containment, or we'll have to figure out an entirely new economics to deal with these situations.
Economic orthodoxy has very little to say about how to put the global economy on ice for months or years at a time, let alone how to resuscitate it afterward. We're in uncharted territory in terms of healthcare, economy and so many other things.
The combination of careful study and decisive leadership this kind of situation demands will rival postwar economic reconstruction in its demands on our leaders. Let's hope they're up to it.
Maybe Next Time...
Believe it or not, I actually set out to write about the ways management can kill improvements to corporate culture and productive processes... and then I thought, I can't write a post on leadership without touching on the worldwide leadership marathon we're seeing all around us. I'll just write a quick preface covering that...
Ah well. We return to our normally-scheduled content next week... hopefully.
Be safe, and look out for each other.