Political leadership during times of crisis
"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". said Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address which became the cornerstone rallying cry to preserve the Union which ultimately became the oldest democracy and the biggest economic empire of our times - USA.
Political Leadership unlike corporate leadership isn't limited in scope but may extend the ambit to an entire nation. Apart from the limitations on the control that democratic institutions impose on the leader, the social dynamics of an evolving society and power dynamics affect the way a political leader chooses to respond.
The leadership during times of crisis unlike normal course often dictate the legacy a leader leaves behind impacting the psyche of the nation for centuries. While Gettysburg address continues to be remembered to this day for its importance in retaining the Union, the leadership of Marcus Aurelius in ancient Rome saw similar turmoil and the slow decline of the empire.
There are some things which should characterize leaders during a crisis:-
1. Sense of Stability
Crisis are moments which inherently brings instability. These are times when political leadership as well as the public at large feel the most vulnerable. The leadership is vulnerable because the masses are prone to fear psychosis, mass hysteria and irrational behavior which when handled badly can result in the overthrow of the system. The masses feel vulnerable when the situation impresses upon them a feeling of insecurity or loss of hope fuelling a self-sustaining cycle. The leader then is forced to put a brave front to ensure the cycle of instability isn't set in motion. The masses in turn rally behind the self-assured leader even more strongly over-compensating for their irrational fears by clinging to the status quo leader in what is called "rally round the flag syndrome". The popularity of mass leaders whether Roosevelt, Lincoln or Modi can be attributed to their aggressive leading from the front when respective countries were in crisis. The current Covid-19 situation will similarly see short term rally round the flag affect while in the long run enter the history books as remarkable legacies of leader whether positive or negative.
2. Sensitivity and Timing
Crisis situations are in the State of flux making the leader's decisions and the response of his followers sensitive. The timing of tough decisions becomes more important and can mean the difference between goodwill or bitterness. Anything which signifies defensive behavior may lead to a feeling of loss. Loss of hope is something he can't afford to showcase even when odds are stacked against him.
3. Clear and regular communication
Times of crisis are times when rumors abound and unconfirmed news spreads like wild-fire. Regular communication ensures clarification and updates to the people who are starving for information on the progress of the crisis. The Covid-19 situation is forcing Presidents/Prime Minister's to communicate more while the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is conducting daily Press Meetings to put forth the official status to the people. On the other hand, China which didn't communicate the situation at hand namely human to human transmission to its people as well the global community is facing the flak and seeing the unprecedented backlash from the international community.
4. Moral Leadership
While political oneupmanship or pure opportunism may go by during normal times, a true leader wouldn't show such signs during the crisis and lose respect and responsiveness. Often the leader will have to rally behind other more powerful leaders to put a united front against the external enemies whether perceived or real. Moral leadership makes the ends seem worthy and gets the people on board for the noble cause
5. The Nerve battle
Rationality is very difficult for anyone including a leader particularly when others are losing their heads crying hoarse. It's akin to the age-old psychological wreck Arjuna found himself in the midst of the Mahabharata war where he was to contend with his own brothers to restore "dharma". Philosophical questions of what constitutes greater good to greatest numbers will have to take preference over humane sentiments. After all, a political leader has to ensure that the collateral damages of his decision is borne by the smallest numbers and is answerable to each of them. Unlike historians who will judge, the leader doesn't have the benefit of hindsight. I am sure "Nero won't have fiddled when Rome burnt" if he knew his name would be recounted in history to symbolize indifference of the leader.
Unlike corporate leadership where overcoming crisis can result in monetary benefits, promotion or an improved status within an organization, the political leadership may be sealing its place to eternal glory in the pages of the history of his country. Glory doesn't come easy.