Coronavirus is a massive challenge for world leaders: what China, Italy and the US teach us about leadership

RobertGlazer_100.jpegBy Robert Glazer, Founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners

We often learn the most about leadership by observing our leaders in times of crisis.

As world leaders attempt to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19, they must simultaneously perform two opposing and difficult tasks: prepare their countries for significant risk and avoid inciting panic.

What we are seeing at the moment is multiple test cases in crisis leadership, as several different countries face similar versions of the same problem and react with noticeably different approaches and results.

Focussing on the COVID-19 response on three continents – specifically examining China, Italy and the United States (US) – there are clear take-aways and learnings on different aspects of the response to and management of the outbreak. These lessons are not only helpful to other countries as they manage their own COVID-19 responses, but they also provide valuable examples for leaders in any field, including procurement.

China shows limits of command and control as well as benefits of decisive action
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has been widely reported to have significant capacity for control, using vast state authority and a significant surveillance programme. As the point of origin of COVID-19, the Chinese government’s effort to control the virus has been watched closely by the entire world.

China responded with what the World Health Organization (WHO) called “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”, including closing down manufacturing sectors, sharing information widely, executing mass testing and quarantining millions of people. The Chinese government made the decision to absorb a significant economic cost to contain COVID-19 rather than potentially lose control. The result was effective – the number of new cases decreased steadily and the decision was made to lift quarantine measures in certain regions.

This is an example of the benefit of command and control leadership as well as decisive action to immediately consolidate efforts into an aggressive response.

However, it is worth considering the erosion of trust that this type of system creates. The Atlantic documented the ways in which local Chinese officials under-reported the spread of COVID-19 to the federal government, as the Wuhan province failed to report the outbreak until weeks after it began and downplayed the likelihood of human transmission until whistle-blowers stepped forward – and were, subsequently, punished. This delay cost China valuable time in containing the initial outbreak.

When people are afraid to come forward to tell the truth and are discouraged from speaking up, critical information often does not reach leadership until the problem has intensified. While it cannot be known for sure, the COVID-19 outbreak may have been contained earlier under different leadership conditions.

Italy demonstrates the peril of slow response and a lack of co-ordination
The epicentre of COVID-19 in Europe has been Italy, which saw a rapid increase of cases over two weeks in early March – the number of cases even jumped by 50% in a single day on 1 March.

This was, in part, because the outbreak in Italy intensified so quickly; there was a lack of consistency in the Italian government’s response. CNN reported that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte acknowledged a “not entirely proper” management of a North Italy hospital helped contribute to the outbreak. But, even as the virus spread, the Italian government and tourism heads tried to convey that everything was under control and the situation was business as usual.

Just two days later, Italy drastically scaled up their response, shutting down schools, sporting events and tourism sites, following China’s example. These rapidly different messages coming from the Italian government created confusion and mistrust for both citizens and tourists.

The lesson is clear: in a crisis, leaders can create panic and distrust when they rapidly change their messaging. It seems the country’s officials underestimated the potential spread of the virus and various groups and stakeholders were not acting in co-ordination.

When significant problems strike, leaders must be careful to avoid saying something that they will end up contradicting later.

The US tries to control the narrative
The US’ initial exposure to COVID-19 was comparatively limited, but the threat intensified to the pandemic we are currently witnessing, with the country on high alert and on lockdown.

The country’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) had been cautioning Americans to prepare for a potential outbreak since 25 February and Vice President Mike Pence was tasked with leading the government’s co-ordinated response.

Even President Donald Trump’s allies would likely admit that this challenge is out of step with his leadership tendencies. Trump likes to control the narrative surrounding his administration and tries to avoid unfavourable coverage. This causes him to downplay issues to win the PR battle, as he has been doing by diverting attention to China.

Trump has shown a tendency during difficult situations to rely heavily on his inner circle rather than subject matter experts as well as to state opinions as facts. This has created several situations where Trump has contradicted experts on his own task force attempting to educate the public, most notably by consistently overstating the scientifically-acknowledged timeline to create a vaccine.

Trump questioned the reported fatality rate of the virus, saying in an interview: “I think the 3.4% [number] is really a false number”, without providing factual basis for his own assessment or “hunch”. This does not inspire trust or confidence with the masses.

In business, attempting to control the narrative is a common way to respond to public adversity, and it can work when there is not a large divergence from the underlying facts. Just as a leader of a struggling start-up might do, the American government attempted to alleviate concerns and assure Americans that COVID-19 had already been contained.

However, the virus does not respond to public perception. Considering the escalation of COVID-19 in America, in hindsight the President’s response looks unrealistic.

Crisis management is perhaps the most difficult test for leaders. This is especially true for a case like COVID-19, which does not have a comparable historical precedent or solution and where the threat is constantly evolving.

Leaders in all fields can learn from countries’ responses: problems are best pre-empted in environments of trust and transparency, and challenges are best faced with cohesive, decisive and consistent action. They should also realise that winning the short-term news cycle is not a long-term solution. Only time will tell exactly how effective the world’s leaders have been and which strategies produced the best outcome.


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