By Ming Ming Chiu

On November 19, 2019, a coronavirus infected 1 person in Wuhan, China. 148 days later, it has infected over a million people across the globe and killed over 100,000. Although some countries are successfully fighting this coronavirus, many are failing, in part because of poor leadership.

The spread of Covid-19 has shown that unlike leaders in Brazil, Mexico, China, US, Italy and Iran, leaders in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany and Iceland: (1) faced the Covid-19 problem quickly, (2) gathered information, (3) mobilised/coordinated people/resources for problem solving, (4) communicated transparently, (5) evaluated progress and adapted accordingly, resulting in far fewer Covid-19 deaths.

mask coronavirus covid
File photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore quickly saw the potential devastation of Covid-19. Many people could die, which would wreck the economy, and both would threaten political stability.  So, by February, these leaders acted quickly and calmly, tested for virus infections, treated them, and traced their contacts, thereby reducing future infections and deaths.

However, acknowledging a problem requires admitting an imperfection, which threatens one’s self-image and requires emotional, mental and behavioural effort. Thus, some leaders arrogantly deny the problem. For example, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said, “With my history as an athlete, if I were infected with the virus I would have no reason to worry. I would feel nothing,” as Covid-19 infections in Brazil soared from 970 to 4,630 in 10 days.

Emotionally, we welcome good news but are more inclined to deny bad news. Also, understanding and solving a problem requires time, mental effort, and physical action. Hence, some leaders ignore or downplay problems.

For example, Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s 2009 government policies successfully ended the H1N1 flu epidemic with only 398 deaths, but the current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador scorned those polices; instead, he asked Mexicans to go shopping to boost their economy, as their coronavirus infections skyrocketed from 7 to 1,094 in 20 days. 

Such poor leadership fosters a bureaucratic culture of problem avoidance. Even worse, some leaders punish their subordinates for revealing problems. After Dr. Li Wenliang publicly discussed Covid-19, Xi Jinping’s bureaucracy in China silenced him, allowing the coronavirus to eventually become a pandemic.       

Li Wenliang
Whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang.

To reduce this human inclination to avoid problems, leaders can value them, knowing that problems always exist and that solving them improves people’s welfare. So, they engage with people and processes both inside and outside their purview to find problems. Instead of being upset when subordinates identify problems, leaders can publicly thank them and begin solving these problems, which encourages a culture of problem finding and problem solving.

After facing Covid-19, some leaders gathered information from diverse experts and testing. For example, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong listened to the views of government epidemiologists, doctors, economists, lawyers, etc.

This practice reveals colleagues’ individual, initial knowledge; builds shared understanding for subsequent problem solving; facilitates solution implementation; and promotes consensus communication. Then, they gathered data by testing potential Covid-19 victims and tracing their contacts. As a result, Singapore has only had 8 deaths as of April 14.

However, as leaders often enjoy high status and respect, grounded in past successes, they might arrogantly delude themselves and overestimate their knowledge/expertise for solving a problem. As a result, they might ignore other problem dimensions, implement inadequate solutions, or miss unintended, harmful consequences.

Despite the #1 ranking of the US in Global Health Security Index (also #1 in epidemiology workforce, biosecurity, and emergency preparation and response planning), US President Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus crisis, gathered insufficient information, and largely relied on a January 31, 2020 travel ban to stave off the coronavirus, resulting in the most infections of any country in the world –over 500,000 infections thus far, along with over 20,000 deaths.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. Photo: GovUS.

After gathering information, leaders can mobilise suitable people and sufficient resources, and coordinate them to solve the problem. For example, Taiwan President Tsai Ing‑wen brought together their Central Epidemic Command, Biological Pathogen Disaster Command, Counter-Bioterrorism Command, and Central Medical Emergency Operations Centre into a National Health Command Centre. Their 126-step plan limited Covid-19 deaths to only 6 as of April 14.

However, mobilising and coordinating new teams and resources challenges tradition. Most organisations minimise effort and maximise efficiency via traditional personnel structures and procedures, but when they no longer suffice, some leaders do not notice.

For example, although Italy has the #2 health care system in the world, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stopped Lombardy governor Attilio Fontana’s early testing and failed to expand health facilities into stadiums, hotels, school dormitories, etc., resulting in over 19,000 deaths.

To reduce over-reliance on standard procedures, leaders can institutionalise problem solving during meetings. Rather than simply receiving reports during meetings, leaders can solicit problems and select one for participants to solve. Such problem solving meetings facilitate major changes to traditional procedures during crises.

To effectively implement solutions, leaders communicate transparently, specifying problems, solutions, costs, and benefits. For example, Germany prime minister Angela Merkel explained on national TV: (a) the terrifying possibility that Covid-19 might infect 70% of people, (b) the solutions of testing, tracing, and treating; closing schools; and banning social gatherings, (c) the cost of temporarily losing freedom of assembly, and (d) the benefit of fewer deaths. Such transparent communication enhances people’s trust in her.

Lastly, leaders can monitor their progress and adapt. For example, Icelandic president Guðni Johannesson initially required coronavirus testing of arriving plane passengers in February. After Iceland’s first confirmed Covid-19 infection on February 28, he initiated free, representative coronavirus testing to accurately estimate its spread, banned gatherings of over 100 people, and closed schools on March 14.

After coronavirus infections jumped from 22 on March 16 to 53 on March 17, he also banned public gatherings over 20 people on March 18. As of April 3, Covid-19 has killed only 8 Icelanders.

If you are leading a team, organisation or country, will you deny problems, overestimate your knowledge, avoid change, hoard information and assume the best? Or face problems, gather information, coordinate problem solving, communicate transparently, and evaluate progress?  

In emergent teams, job interviews, or elections, will you assess candidates carefully to choose your leader?

Ming Ming Chiu is Chair Professor of Analytics and Diversity, and Director of the Assessment Research Centre at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.