One thing’s for sure — the world will never be the same again once COVID-19 is over. That world will either be purposely shaped, or inherited through complacency. Whatever the outcome, public servants will have a leadership role to play.
The most grievous part of being a trauma therapist in 2020 was not the constant reminder of death, nor what was causing so many people to die. Nor was it the uncertainty of when it would all end. Rather, it was the fact that so much of the suffering caused could have been avoided, had we elected better leaders to begin with.
Throughout COVID-19, the interdependence of nation states on everything from scientific data, to vaccine supplies, to coordination of travel restrictions, has forced us to ask how leadership might differ going forward. In the midst of our collective shock, personal trauma, and general longing for a better tomorrow, bold new ideas that would once have seemed implausible now have a shot.
Of course, critics and cynics will continue to argue that better is impossible. They’ll say that the magnitude of greed and violent predisposition among human beings is too great; that the stakes for those who stand to lose power are too high; that people’s reluctance to forgive one another is too crippling, or that existing privileges and inequalities are just too entrenched.
I reject these arguments, based both on my expertise and my own experiences. In the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera: “A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.”
What is real leadership material?
First, how has the pandemic changed who we look up to and why? Before the pandemic, success was almost universally defined as the acquisition of great wealth and fame. An ‘influencer’ was someone who uploaded videos of themselves living it up in some remote part of the tropics. The pandemic showed us a different reality, one in which an influencer is someone who works long hours producing things people really need.
Think of Dr Anthony Fauci’s popularity versus the kind people vie for on Tik Tok. Think of the essential worker versus the social media influencer. Before the pandemic, leadership was a popularity contest, and arguably remains so now. Isn’t it time we demanded more of public servants who hold positions of leadership?
An end to popularity contests
If public leaders are to have more than popularity to show for themselves, perhaps there should be a set of criteria with which to grant them license to practice. Before one is qualified to lead, perhaps we should ask whether they are trustworthy, mentally agile, a good listener, resilient in the face of criticism, and open to dialogue. Of course, these areas do not automatically translate to great leadership, but they arguably essential qualities of a good leader. In short, there should be a bare minimum set of characteristics or virtues that we look for in the people who lead us.
As things stand, access to the nuclear codes can be granted to those with deeply troubling and often unresolved childhood trauma, whose styles of leadership often divide, frustrate or trivialise political processes. Enforcement of leadership qualifications could by contrast encompass proportionality, lawfulness and necessity. Rigorously vetting leaders would demonstrate that such checks and balances serve the well being of citizens. This would elevate leadership to standards comparable with global athleticism, rather than show business.
Compassion for constituencies
Empathy and compassion are widely understood as a person’s ability to take the emotional view of another. This is an important trait for a leader, though the context in which it is exercised is equally important. Often in a state of upheaval, uncertainty or panic, groupthink takes hold, and what was clear to all yesterday is suddenly rife with relativism and dogma today.
Democratically elected leaders often argue that consensus-building from a place of compassion is the cornerstone of good governance. Exerting efforts to strike an equilibrium of opinion however can be unwise.
For example, the Government of Singapore last year took the unpopular decision to fly in the face of deep cultural norms around Chinese New Year. It stridently ordered restaurants to close and said it would issue fines to people found socialising around the occasion in public. Similarly, New Zealand now attributes its low Covid-19 infection rate to its early and strict border closures. It is important that leaders rethink what compassion really means, even when their seeming lack of compassion draws ire.
Sometimes a command and control approach is advisable. Reframing what compassion means in this way can be the difference between economic ruin and being the first country to bounce back from Covid-19. The confidence of heads of state to know that what they are doing is right, even if it is taken badly, requires a strong inner-core. With unpopular decisions often come particularly cruel forms of criticism, especially of women in power. The best leaders are nevertheless those that are able to continue on a justified course of action despite this.
A reset on leadership after Covid-19 will demand different expectations in the workplace, at schools and even within homes. CEOs will be rewarded for their conscience, not just their quarterly targets. Instead of constantly asking children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, teachers may instead introduce stoic exercises to frame a child’s self-development around questions of love, death, happiness, and all that makes a life worth living.
Early and deep contemplation of one’s existence has the paradoxical ability to assuage one’s fears of the unknown, of things which make them feel uncomfortable, or of things which seem dangerous at first glance.
Communication to constituencies
From a psychological perspective, a reset is both possible and desirable. Just like the body’s natural reset after a period of fasting, a great healing awaits us after such a lengthy period of loss and suspension of life.
Death is perhaps the most democratic institution we know of. It is also one of the most persuasive arguments for change.
As Albert Einstein once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction”.