Leadership & COVID – Leading responsibly beyond denial and salvation

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus many of the challenges facing leaders in times of uncertainty and fear. For addressing the epidemiological, social, economic, and political issues raised by the virus different leaders’ (and followers) show all kinds of responses to the pandemic, often inadequately and with limited success.

Leadership in Times of Crisis
Leadership in difficult times – a positive perspective helps to overcome challenges.

Historically, humans and their communities and societies have frequently experienced threatening crisis including various forms of plagues and corrosive illnesses affecting enormous numbers of people.

Like millions of people before us who lived through wars, dislocations, famines, and natural disasters, we must understand that safety and certainty are desirable but cannot be vouchsafed by anyone.

Not long ago for example the HIV/Aids caused widespread panic and scapegoating, while it was met with repudiation and obfuscation. Likewise malaria and related illnesses have and still kills many human beings, especially in what is called abstractly “Global South”.

The complexities of the challenges and situation facing us, with its many imponderables and uncertainties and fears or Angst real and imaginary, make them a testing time for (wise) leadership. Correspondingly, the international leadership conference by the international leadership association of this year had the programmatic title “Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges from Around the Globe.[i]

The following outlines some patterned problematic reactions (denial and salvation) and reflects possibilities for following adaptive and wiser forms of leading and leadership practice.

One reaction while facing threatening challenges can crisis, human and in particular leaders (and in leadership) tends to act according to guiding values and orientations that are expected and guiding in their culture. Disconcertingly, this continuation and commitment to existing ways of organising is done even amidst the collapse of conditions in which these orientating frameworks are effective or meaningful. Such conservative stance implies often a denial that often operates unconscious manifesting a wish of leaders (and followers) for the problem or crisis “not to be so” or not as severe respectively only temporarily and to be fixed. Or when admitting that there is a problem, the anger and grief are hijacked or the problem is projected towards hatred and despair and all kinds of scapegoating.

Hence the proliferation of conspiracy theories usually associated with right-wing political movements mobilising typical leadership tactics of visionary simplification, charismatic aesthetics, adolescent machismo, and threatened or actual violence.

demonstration against Corona vaccination
Demonstration against Covid-19 vaccination. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Relatedly while there is an increasing look for messianic solutions, there emerges a “Leadership of salvation” by which many people are motivated or inclined to take up leader roles because they hope to rescue the situation. For corona this involves hopes in track and trace technologies of purveyance, vaccines and cures, or, or the miraculous effects of mindfulness and prayer.  

Another more constructive form leadership can take are practices of adaptation including policing, helping to reconcile with the situation, by measuring the appreciation of risks, and grieve suffering or loss, weigh discretion when options seem narrowed, and to choose pragmatic change.

 According to Bendel (2018) a “deep adaptation” leaders could practice 4 R’s:

  1. Resilience, through stewardship of psychological, cultural, natural, & material resources.
  2. Relinquish habits and possessions that can no longer be sustained.
  3. Restore trust, confidence, shared values, and other social goods.
  4. Reconcile with those who we have fallen out with, in recognition of our interdependence and that life is much enhanced by amity and good will.

Adapting also for adopting new ways of personal, professional and public sur-plus value, effectively, and ethically! Not only organising « fit for purpose » but repurposing the thus repositioned fittings!

What is therefore needed are not only such deep adapting moves, but transformative practices. This implies transforming the underlying and itself leading assumptions and priorities of  how businesses and institutions are organised, how power within them is distributed, and what is valued how especially in relation to holders of shares or stakes and how these are (re-)prioritized. Part of this orientation is transforming important swathes of our beliefs, priorities, policies, institutions, and alliances, which implies far-reaching implications and practices.

As Paul ‘t Hart just stated recently [ii]: “How our leaders and government institutions tackle these uncomfortable challenges will define their legacies and shape their countries’ futures. Will the Corona crisis be handled with poise, decency, and resilience, or be allowed to derail and spawn bitterness, instability, and decline?” …. And what is required from political leaders is “less use of their ‘power to decide’ and more use of their power to convene, facilitate, broker, and then persuade.” …”Tackling Corona with purpose and integrity requires leadership that does not deny, dodge, or distort the dilemmas.”

And with Yiannis Gabriel (2020) “the best that COVID-19 can offer us is an opportunity to accept and live with the adversities of life; liberate ourselves from false beliefs in the omnipotence of leadership, scientific and political, in resolving all our troubles; and restore our faith in ourselves as citizens capable of holding our leaders to account, while taking responsibility for our own actions.”

The pandemic invites not only rethinking management (Kuepers et al. 2017) but re-doing it differently.

Article by Prof. Dr. Wendelin Küpers, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies and Head of Degree Program of the new master course Social TransFormation – Politics, Philosophy & Economics

Bendel, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating the climate tragedy Occasional Paper 2, Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability, University of Cumbria. https://iflas.blogspot.com/2018/07/new-paper-on-deep-adaptation-to-climate.html
Gabriel, Y. (2020). Kafka and the COVID-19 epidemic: Why the Sirens’ silence is more deadly than their song Leadership May 20,; pp. 320–330
Küpers et al. (2017). “Introduction: ReThinking Management?!“, In: Küpers, W., S. Sonnenburg & M. Zierold (2015) “Re-Thinking Management, (11-30), Berlin: Springer.

[i] http://www.ila-net.org/Reflections/index.html
[ii] Paul ‘t Hart 2020 http://www.ila-net.org/Reflections/phart.html https://www.uu.nl/medewerkers/pthart

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