The ongoing global lockdown caused by the Covid-19 virus is an unprecedented occurrence which will impact lives, businesses & economies cataclysmically. What is not unprecedented is the occurrence of such adverse events earlier too that impacted all the three above. The 1990-91 Gulf War & soaring oil prices & the great global recession of 2008-09 are recent examples. Each time the world emerged from a deep crisis, it gave rise to a new world order, creating a “new normal”. So will it be this time.
Speaking about India, the stage is set for its most serious economic challenge in the past 30 years. How we emerge from this crisis will be reflective of the capabilities of our political & business leaders’ response to the crisis.
Benjamin Disraeli has said, “There is no education like adversity.” A crisis as deep as this will not leave until it has taught us a lesson. No leader should allow this crisis to go waste & instead capitalize on the opportunity in adversity. Leaders have a chance to emerge stronger by using this opportunity to leave past baggage behind and race towards a new trajectory.
In the present circumstances, leadership should focus on some of the following key factors that in my opinion require immediate attention:
Addressing safety concerns of their people
It is critical for leaders to understand the complete extent of this pandemic & its multiple implications on different segments of society. The excessive & sometimes fake media & social-media coverage of the spread of the infection has created huge anxiety & fear among people. When the markets reopen, this fear will pose a big challenge to get people back to work. Every leader must prepare for this right away. All safety concerns will need to be addressed & all precautionary measures will need to be put in place prior to restarting normal operations. Leaders need to plan this in advance & create a safe work environment when a lockdown is lifted. Even one case of infection in workplace could bring operations to a grinding halt.
Effective communication with their teams
There is no better example of the importance of communication of a leader with their people during a crisis than our PM Mr Modi. He has spoken directly to the country 4 times in the past one month, in addition to publically apologizing to the daily wagers for the great suffering caused to them. By speaking directly, he made the lockdown acceptable to people despite the great inconvenience caused to them because they were made to feel that it was for their own good. Instead of making a political speech, he implored people for their support.
This is exactly what leaders should be doing. Effective communication is the biggest attribute of a leader. This is the time to communicate directly & reduce anxiety associated with the flood of negative news that media is churning out about lay-offs, salary cuts & increased unemployment post-COVID. Transparency & positivity is imperative when people are unsure of the future. Be truthful in conveying the gravity of the situation. Great empathy is critical while conveying any negative news. It should be done verbally & directly, without hiding behind written communication or palming off the responsibility to a junior. Leaders who do not handle their people well today, will suffer the consequences of a demotivated & angry team when the upturn starts.
Separate the fake news from facts
Fake news has not only created “coronanxiety” but created a new breed of “covidiots”. Educated people have thrown medical workers out of their houses, ambulances carrying patients have been attacked. One case of pizza delivery boy testing positive in Delhi & the entire city is in a panic about ordering food online. I heard someone remark “Don’t eat pizzas. It’s risky”. This is in India.
In UK there have been over 100 cases of vandalism & 50 5G towers have been burnt or damaged as online news spread that 5G wireless transmissions were responsible for the spread of the corona pandemic. Managing such idiocy & overcoming the cascading effect of fake news is a challenge leader will need to handle tactfully, but only if they can sift facts from the fake.
Be ready with a 0 to 3 plan based on personal knowledge & experience
By now every leader should be ready with a plan for day 1, week 1, month 1 right till the first 3 months. An accurate business plan for the year can only be created after that. Be cautious of the multiple advice being dished out on media & social media. Not many people talking to media are competent to talk about the impact the present crises will have on the economy or the factual solution for a successful upturn.
Neils Bohr famously said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”. While there has been some genuine plausible forecast, leaders will need to use their own knowledge, past experience & skills to steer their companies in the right direction. While people will learn from each other, every leader will need to tailor their approach suitable for their own country or organization.
Finally let’s look at some real facts about the handling of the virus by the leadership of different countries. The difference that good leadership makes to its people in a crisis stands out starkly from the following data, valid on the date of this writing—17th April’20.
Taiwan is a country closest to China—81 miles & was expected to be the most affected. Based on their past experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak, Taiwan acted within 3 weeks of the first case in Wuhan & by 31st December’19 started monitoring all incoming travelers. By 5th January’20, it implemented strict safety measures like “electronic fencing” to identify & track people. As on date in a population of 2.38 crores, Taiwan has 395 cases of coronavirus, 6 deaths, 155 recoveries. This despite the fact Taiwan is not a member of WHO, thanks to China & not able to access their guidelines nor offer any support.
Compare this to a similar island, miles away—Australia. In a similar population of 2.5 crores, Australia has 6497 confirmed cases, 63 deaths & 3747 recoveries. The difference lies in the responses of the leaders of the 2 countries
In a study of 60 countries published in Forbes Magazine on different factors including safety, risk level, treatment efficacy, and government support for people affected by the economic impact of the virus, Israel is the safest country in the world against Covid-19. Israeli leadership used their intelligence agency, Mossad, for healthcare support. Surprised?
Using government contacts and clandestine tactics, including theft, the famous Israeli agency made sure there were no shortages within the country. Mossad’s efforts at procurement had succeeded in securing 10 million masks by the end of March, a few dozen ventilator kits, tens of thousands of test kits, as well as surgical masks, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. No other country thought of such a strategy.
The post COVID era will produce two kinds of situations. The fortunate will witness real Leadership in crises, while the unfortunate ones will face a Leadership, in crisis.