What is COVID-19 telling us about leadership?

March 18, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Heather Marquette and Sian Herbert, both University of Birmingham. Their paper on ­­COVID-19, Governance and Conflict: Emerging Impacts and Future Evidence Needs, reviews hundreds of pieces of research and analysis and is published by the Knowledge for Development (K4D) COVID-19 Resource Hub.

COVID-19 has so far proven to be a unique – and ongoing – global natural experiment on leadership, one with lots of twists and surprises. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that surprises are definitely not on the list of things we want when it comes to leadership in pandemics.

Early in the crisis, a lot of attention was paid to whether or not democracies or non-democracies were able to respond more effectively at the unprecedented scale and pace needed. Whatever the final outcome, right now the evidence tells us that the answer so far is ‘neither, really’. Some of the most successful responses have been in democracies and non-democracies, while the same is true when it comes to failures. Poor countries and rich ones alike have done well or have done badly. Basically, regime type and income level have not acted as good predictors.

This is throwing global pandemic preparedness indices for a loop. Guillaume Lafortune looked at measures of national health system capability for epidemic responses (one published in November 2019 and the other in April 2020), and found some surprises.  While a few countries are ranked the same on both indices (e.g. Australia and South Korea), the two top performers in the 2019 index – the UK and US – are not even ranked within the top 40 in the 2020 index. Vietnam appears at the centre of both indexes – predicted to be neither well nor badly prepared for epidemics/pandemics, yet it has been a star performer on COVID-19 so far.

So if democracy and wealth haven’t been great predictors of effective leadership, how about women? From Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, to Sanna Marin in Finland, to Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, as Alana Tomlin from the Developmental Leadership Program puts it, women leaders “are increasingly being judged by their life-saving policies and not by their personalities (or the colour of their shoes)”. Drawing on an original data set to assess the impact of women leaders on a country’s COVID-19 outcomes, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati confirm that countries with women leaders do have lower deaths (so far). They find this is likely to be the result of: a) lower risk appetite, with women-led countries all locking down early; b) a more democratic and participatory leadership style; and c) more decisive and clear communications. However, with only 19 countries out of 194 with women leaders, this is a pretty rubbish sample for an experiment, and they tell us to bear this in mind when trying to interpret their results.

So if we’re not sure (yet) if democratic leadership or women leaders can somehow save the day (which given the uneven negative impact COVID-19 is having on women, seems sadly less and less likely anyway), what do we know about COVID-19 and leadership at this point?

Firstly, as with any compound, complex crisis we’ve seen the importance of leadership that is agile, adaptive and capable. This isn’t just about individual leaders, but rather whether or not political and governance systems enable adaptive ways of working that reward capability and punish incompetence. Good outcomes have often been the result of systems that have enabled leaders to test, learn and adapt, to admit failure, to learn lessons and to change course, with UNDP making the case for systems thinking approaches that can help to identify and integrate risks and policy responses. Matt Andrews argues for a flat structure that encourages distributed leadership; a fast structure built around daily, evidence-based decisions and action; and a flexible structure that allows different views and fosters debate and learning (his Building State Capability site has a huge range of great resources on COVID-19).

Secondly, trust in leadership is absolutely essential. In March 2020, Francis Fukuyama wrote that it will ultimately be ‘the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government’ that will determine how effective COVID-19 responses are, especially ‘whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state’. A year later, this statement still holds. Trust supports more adaptive policy-making because it lowers ‘blame avoidance’ and the political risk to leaders of admitting failure. When adaptation leads to better outcomes, this becomes a potential ‘virtuous circle’ where greater capability and good outcomes increase trust.

Finally, it’s important to remember that leadership failures aren’t just about individuals but are also the result of systemic institutional failures, ones that undermine good decision-making and don’t hold decision-makers to account. Good outcomes often reflect good political processes rather than simply good leaders; the reverse is true for poor outcomes. Bad politics breeds distrust, and distrust closes down the room for manoeuvre that leaders need to cooperate beyond their immediate circle of trusted friends and cronies. In many contexts, the longer-term consequences of this could be damaging for stability; in some, it could be sowing the seeds of future conflicts.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Fran Baum and colleagues tell us: “The [Global Health Security Index] measures trust in government, but it overlooked the role that political leadership and ideology plays in shaping public health responses…Given the vital importance of trust during a pandemic, political leaders who promote transparent government are more likely to mount a more effective response”. This isn’t just about good or bad politics and leadership during COVID-19, but also what came before. Jack Corbett tells us that,

It is true that sometimes leaders are defined by their ability to see options that others do not. But the range of choices open to them is always framed by their socialisation and personality. Their decisions also take place in a specific context created by the choices of past leaders. We have seen this with COVID-19. Leaders in parts of Asia were much better prepared for this crisis because they had been confronted with these types of decisions previously. Likewise, the choices of Trump and Johnson are framed by decades of decision-making about state funding for healthcare. This context is clearly important.

Helen Lewis argues that what we are seeing is the failure of ‘strongman politics’ and the need for a different style of leadership, regardless of who is in charge. Luke Cooper and Guy Aitchison come to a similar conclusion: COVID-19 is highlighting systemic failures of leadership often built on ethnic nationalism and toxic masculinity – often, but not always, alongside crony capitalism and erosion of democratic institutions. Bad leaders whose political and economic ideologies and ways of working have given us cracks in the system for the virus to deepen and who have failed to come up with solutions, often refusing to stop and learn from mistakes out of fear of appearing ‘weak’.

Global preparedness systems can be adapted to better predict where bad political decision-making may get in the way of effective responses in the future.  As the virus continues to mutate, and questions are already being asked about the political will necessary to ensure a successful global rollout of the vaccine, we need better politics, not just better leaders, and we need this now. There are only so many surprises we can all take before systems crack beyond repair.