Pandemics, disasters, crises and catastrophes pose extraordinary challenges for leaders. Facing the grim times is the real test of leadership. If stakes are low then most rulers are willing to take risks, but if the penalties for failure are large then most leaders think many times before taking a decision. Wallach, a US film actor who died in 2014 at the age of 98, says: “There is a particular class of leaders characterized as anxious and defensive who is unable to adjust its decisions to the anticipated penalty”.
Uncertainty, lack of sleep, stress, fatigue, anger, heavy responsibilities, and penalties for wrong decisions act on leaders to mold their behaviors. Generally, rulers are surrounded by a specific cult of people as well as a staff who are ‘yes-men’. They only tell the boss what he/she wants to hear. Lipowski, a Polish writer and psychologist, says: “People who are abnormally ambitious are likely to reach positions which involve making important decisions are the very ones most likely to suffer the consequences of “stimulus overload” resulting in unsound decisions.”
Why do leaders, in crisis situations, make impaired decisions? In an environment of extraordinary crises, a leader may temporarily lose cognitive efficiency resulting in snap decisions. Then there are other causes like, complacency, where the leader either does not comprehend the danger or ignores the vital information regarding the impending danger. It seems like saying: “I have made up my mind, so don’t confuse me with facts.” Overconfident leaders, who are anxious to make quick decisions and rely more on their gut feelings, are likely to be complacent.
Give up weapons first and food next; trust be guarded to the end: Confucius
History is replete with examples where leaders receive social support from advisors who concur with their judgment. For example, cabinet members of a directive prime minister suffering from the illusion of unanimity and invulnerability do not closely analyze all the possible alternatives, but go along with the opinion of the leader. Dissenters are under pressure to go along with the majority. Such “groupthink” results in bad or dysfunctional decisions.
Another reason for impaired decisions is what researchers call “defensive avoidance”, where the leader denies the importance of hovering crises. This results in procrastination, buck passing and bolstering. Favorable consequences are exaggerated and unfavorable are minimized.
“We can fully measure a leader’s greatness when he is challenged to the limit of his ability” (Richard Nixon). In the prevalent pandemic, Pakistan’s leadership faces serious challenges. According to studies, in the first three months, about 18.5 million people have lost their jobs; an economic meltdown may reach Rs 7.5 trillion and 30 per cent labour force could be unemployed. Nobody knows when the crises will end. The country will suffer a colossal loss. What will it take to rebuild the economy?
To reverse these conditions, what type of leadership the country needs? Only a cohesive nation untidily fighting for a common goal can steer the country towards safety and prosperity. A trust-based and credible leadership whose aim is to create national unity and connectedness is our dire need. Some essential leadership traits during and post COVID-19 are: first and foremost: integrity which is not only deep honesty, but also congruence in values, beliefs and behavior. It is humility and courage. A leader must do what he says he would do and he must say what he believes in. In times of crises, a leader’s message to the nation must be delivered in an open, honest and compassionate manner. It should be to the point and should not be camouflaged in long, repetitive and involved speeches. The advice to the nation should be brief and crisp. A long talk takes out the rhythm and punch of the message. Dr Abd Al Rahman Al-Arifi, who studied the Holy Prophet’s life for over 25 years, says that the advice by the Prophet (PBUH) was not more than a sentence or two. He simply and succinctly brought the error to the attention of the person concerned.
Great leaders are the embodiment of humility. They are not egoists. Jim Collins, who along with a team of researchers studied the lives of hundreds of leaders over a period of five years, says: “We were surprised rather shocked to discover that great leaders were not high profile with big personalities who hit the headlines and become celebrities. On the contrary, they were a strong blend of deep personal humility and intense professional will”. A great leader is a statesman, and not a politician. A politician thinks about the next elections whereas a statesman thinks about the next generation. A statesman is not influenced, but exerts his/her influence and describes how the world should be.
Competence is another essential quality a leader must possess. He should be capable of delivering results because results matter to his/her credibility. The results matter to establish and maintain trust with the people. Without results, it’s like showing incompetence to the nation. One may have a lot of energy, intelligence and integrity but without showing results these qualities are immaterial. Similarly, one may have high energy and intelligence, but without integrity the person is unpredictable and dangerous.
Only a cohesive nation, led by a leader who is a living embodiment of integrity, competence, good intent, vitality, deep personal humility and intense professional will steer the country out of turmoil, crises, catastrophes and pandemics.
Leadership is the art of influencing people to get their willing cooperation. In crises and catastrophes, leaders imbued with this art would be able to influence people to face the brutal facts yet not lose hope that they will prevail in the end. The Greek philosophy of influencing people is summarized in three words that a leader should have ‘Ethos, Pathos, and Logos’. Ethos basically means one’s ethical nature, and his/her integrity. It is the level of trust people have in a person’s integrity and competence. Pathos is empathy. It’s the feeling side. It means the leader understands people’s feelings. A leader must seek to understand people’s feelings. Logos stands for logic. It’s the power of persuasion a leader should seek to be understood. This is how he/she can establish and maintain trust, especially in difficult times.
On the importance of trust, let me quote from the Financial Times Editorial: “Executives tempted to take shortcuts should remember the dictum of Confucius that good governments need weapons, food and trust. If the ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end, because without trust, we cannot stand.”
The writer is a senior Advisor Sustainable Development Policy Institute Islamabad. The views expressed by the writer are his own and do not necessarily reflect SDPI’s official stance.
This article was originally published at: https://dailytimes.com.pk/624769/crises-and-catastrophes-a-real-test-of-leadership/
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.