Covid-19 and the Unfolding of Global Leadership

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As Covid-19 unfolded, it became quite clear that leaders in all countries had to face and cope with a globally interconnected health crisis. This global crisis demands committed global leadership, which however has greatly varied in approaches, styles and actions, as all of us could experience and witness. Driven by our curiosity of what we could collectively learn from the current experience, my colleagues Mark Mendenhall, Betina Szkudlarek Joyce Osland and I (2020) published a collection of reflections written by global leaders, practitioners, and global leadership scholars. Here, I would like to highlight some of the overarching themes and notions that featured prominently among these reflections.  

First of all, this complex and dangerous crisis challenges the way we conceptualize and think about global leadership and its critical competencies and skills. For example, such a powerful attribute as humility could become more relevant in how we conceive global leadership. As Nancy Adler put it in her essay, effective action in the face of great ambiguity requires courage to embrace humility by openly admitting that ‘We don’t know’. Existing research supports the positive notions of humility, linking it to inquisitiveness and openness towards learning and being taught by others. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the European scientific revolution of the 16th century, if it were not for the bold realization and willingness to admit our ignorance, and hence the fact that we don’t know everything. Likewise, given the current complex issues we need to deal with, such as health, migration or climate change, it is difficult to envision global leaders without such a drive to know more and understand better. Yet, looking at some of the global leaders today, it seems that overconfidence, deliberate ignorance and gaslighting prevail. Back in February President Trump was certain that the virus will disappear as it gets warmer, and only recently after catching the virus himself, he compared it to the flu and claimed to discover the ‘miracle cure’… Needless to say, such lack of truthful validation of reality can easily undermine health and safety of all of us. Echoing the notion of a learning mindset, Adler continues that global leaders should follow up on their truthful admission of ‘We don’t know’ with a ‘yet’, that is, an action plan on how ti explore more, research the phenomenon at hand, and collect more information.

Apart from the need for humility, our contributors highlighted the importance of integrity, resilience, self-reflection, anticipation, empathy, creativity and shared purpose. These competencies are crucial not just in light of the Covid crisis, but also more generally in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (aka VUCA) environments that global leaders need to increasingly navigate. Unfortunately, our contributors also identified a current lack of such competencies among many global leaders.

Secondly, various reflections emphasized on the shift in attention from an individual “hero” toward global leadership as a collective and collaborative effort. In other words, there is little of “Batman” in global leadership. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the idea explicitly, as no leader alone can battle the crisis without the collective effort to physically distance, wear masks, take responsible decisions, and seek collaborative efforts to develop treatments, save small businesses and adapt to virtual realities. Indeed, during the spring lockdowns we witnessed heart-warming moments of unified communities, be it Italians singing from their balconies or flash mobs and rituals that supported frontline workers in different countries. Yet, as the Covid crisis continued we also witnessed big discrepancies in global leaders’ perceptions of the situation, a politicization of responses to the pandemic, a zero-sum game approach to the vaccine, and public backlashes towards governmental decisions.

As several contributors highlighted, collective enactment of global leadership requires empowering people at the local level, while sustaining shared sensemaking of the situation and a feeling of unity at a global scale. This challenge compels leaders to delegate decision authority to local governments, which can only function when paired with alignment and accountability. The challenge also compels global and local leaders to unite people towards coherent action by creating a common understanding and a shared identity, which can bridge national, cultural, political or conditional differences. Pondering global leaders’ qualities, competencies and the strategies they used, it is interesting to reflect on how these challenges were met in different countries. For example, why did New Zealand show unity across party lines and the entire nation while the US experiences such stark division and tug-of-war between prominent leaders?

Finally, taken together the collection of essays acknowledged that global leadership is also about balancing a number of competing tensions, such as unity vs distinctiveness, individual rights vs common good, global collaboration vs local protection, and a long-term vs a short-term perspective. For instance, although the Covid crisis calls for unity and personal sacrifices for the common good, we cannot ignore the fact that there are great discrepancies in experienced hardship and available resources, both within and between countries. As discussed in one of my previous blog posts, joblessness and economic hardship related to Covid have hit certain segments of the population harder than others. So how can global leaders achieve unity while acknowledging and validating distinctiveness? One set of implications concerns how global leaders frame and build narratives around a given issue or situation, namely, how they communicate. Careful to navigate the pitfalls of ignorance, hypocrisy or amplified contrasting, global leaders may need to use rich and redundant communication to transmit accurate messages, while revealing care and compassion for these messages to be heard.

Naturally, such tensions or dualities sometimes raise questions of ethics and responsibility. Consider the tension between economic survival and health in respect to Covid measures, or economic advantage and nature preservation in respect to climate change issues, or the protection of local interests vs support for global refugees in addressing migration. How would responsible global leader act upon such tensions? My colleague Yih-Teen Lee sees potential in the concept of dynamic balancing, which ‘refers to the ever-evolving and ongoing process of attending competing demands and formulating one’s response to address multiple logics simultaneously’. In other words, faced with such a duality it might not be about choosing one side, but rather about integrating both sides, because we ought to acknowledge that any system in itself is incomplete.  

We have not overcome the pandemic yet, thus drawing any clear conclusions on the rights and wrongs, or the most and least effective global leaders might be premature. Yet, as the battle continues we can surely reflect on and learn from how global leadership has unfolded thus far. Moreover, we can identify important questions to be examined, so that in the future we will know a little better.


Further reading:

Reiche, B.S., Mendenhall, M.E., Szkudlarek, B. and Osland, J.S. (2020), “At the Heart and Beyond: What Can Global Leadership Researchers Learn from Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Osland, J.S., Szkudlarek, B., Mendenhall, M.E. and Reiche, B.S. (Ed.) Advances in Global Leadership, Vol. 13, pp. 261-282. Emerald.

Osland, J.S., Mendenhall, M.E., Reiche, B.S., Szkudlarek, B., Bolden, R., Courtice, P., Vaiman, V., Vaiman, M., Lyndgaard, D., Nielsen, K., Terrell, S., Taylor, S., Lee, Y., Stahl, G., Boyacigiller, N., Huesing, T., Miska, C., Zilinskaite, M., Ruiz, L., Shi, H., Bird, A., Soutphommasane, T., Girola, A., Pless, N., Maak, T., Neeley, T., Levy, O., Adler, N. and Maznevski, M. (2020), “Perspectives on Global Leadership and the COVID-19 Crisis”, Osland, J.S., Szkudlarek, B., Mendenhall, M.E. & Reiche, B.S. (Eds.) Advances in Global Leadership, Vol. 13, pp. 3-56. Emerald.

One thought on “Covid-19 and the Unfolding of Global Leadership

  1. It is truly said that- A nation is known by its leaders. This year has really been very tough on everyone all over the world. I hope people are taking good care of their health.

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