PEOPLE don’t follow leaders; they follow what they see in leaders.”
If there is anything this pandemic has highlighted to the nation, perhaps what has been, and continues to be most glaring, is the absence of exemplary leadership at the top of the house.
In a recent article by the Harvard Business Review, it lists four traits of decisive leadership, that have proven to be invaluable in navigating these uncertain times. (“What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic,” Harvard Business Review, 13 April 2020).
Let’s examine what they are, and how our own leaders measure up to them.
1. Act with urgency.
A well-documented and pernicious problem with any ambiguous threat is the (understandable) tendency to wait for more information and clarity. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action is needed is dangerous—particularly in the face of a pandemic with an exponential growth rate, when each additional day of delay contributes even greater devastation than the last.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that he acted swiftly to contain the spread of the virus in the country, and that he was one of the first in our part of the world to do so. But did he really? At a time when each day is precious, Taiwan, which our presidential spokesman was called out for by Taipei for insisting that it is “part of China,” banned all travel from Wuhan from Jan. 23. Singapore closed its borders to all travelers coming from mainland China on Jan 31. The Philippines, in the meantime, did not ban Chinese tourists from entering until Feb. 2. But, because of the large number of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators workers, some of which Department of the Interior and Local Government Undersecretary for operations Epimaco Densing III claimed had come from Wuhan, the country was especially vulnerable, and the delay in our actions to stop their entry may have meant that the horse had already left the barn when our lockdown was imposed.
2. Communicate with transparency.
Communicating bad news is a thankless task. Leaders who get out ahead risk demoralizing employees, customers or citizens, threatening their popularity. It takes wisdom and some courage to understand that communicating with transparency is a vital antidote to this risk.
Late night press conferences, long-winded and often off-tangent comments– interspersed with his trademark colorful language meant that the President’s communication attempts during this pandemic period never really succeeded in calming the nerves and reassuring the anxieties of the Filipinos. For some inexplicable reason, the focus often shifted to the National People’s Army and other supposed threats to national security, instead of the health emergency at hand.
3. Respond productively to missteps.
How leaders respond to the inevitable missteps and unexpected challenges is just as important as how they first address the crisis.
Missteps were aplenty, the likes of which include the killing of Army Cpl. Winston Ragos for breaking quarantine regulations. But true to form, instead of owning up and apologizing, the leaders ultimately responsible doubled down and defended the indefensible, alienating large numbers of Filipinos expecting compassion and understanding in the face of national emergency.
4. Engage in constant updating.
Leaders must constantly update their understanding of prior probabilities, even daily, deliberately using strategies to elicit new information and learn rapidly as events unfold and new information comes to light.
First wave, second wave, third wave? Mass testing or not? If anything, there was confusion rather than information, increasing people’s anxiety, instead of encouraging reassurance.
This pandemic is still very much with us, and much still remains to be done. Whether our national leadership can respond and correct its missteps over the last six weeks remains to be seen. But it is something that does not leave them much of a choice. Our national survival depends on it.