Leadership in the time of Corona

Leadership in the time of Corona

Leadership in the time of Corona

Internationally, the normally powerful are powerless. But here in South Africa, they defer to the experts who take the lead. And ordinary South Africans are united as never before.

Jonathan Yudelowitz & Hilton Brown 

In collaboration with:
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This is a time like no other. It is truly unprecedented. Not only because the world is united in its focus. Not only because we all fear an unseen and, to date, unknowable enemy. And not only because the crisis is changing and shifting so rapidly – what we would have written last week would not be relevant today.

The Corona Crisis is also remarkable in the qualities it has brought out in South Africa. Both in its leadership and its people.

In times of crisis, leadership often reaches a pinnacle of egotistical authority, with scant regard for nuance, complexity or even reality. It has all the authenticity and consideration of a teenager who knows everything.

But those models have no currency right now. Those with power suddenly find themselves powerless. They are failing. First, the Chinese. Then the British Prime Minister and his bluster. And all the while, President Trump who has failed the USA spectacularly by not engaging meaningfully with the experts.

As he confessed recently, he deliberately downplayed the threat because he “didn’t want to be a negative person.” A lot of help that was. As was his shuttling between extremes. “I knew it could be horrible” one moment, followed the next by “I knew it could be maybe good.” Say what?

Compare that bluster with South Africa’s leadership.

President Ramaphosa and Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, recognising that the only views that matter right now are those of the experts, and knowing their own limitations, have deferred to that authority.

That’s impressive leadership. They have ensured that the people most qualified to guide us through these incredibly fraught times can do so.

In standing back, Ramaphosa’s leadership, especially, has come to the fore.

In South Africa, our leadership needs an integrated view of all the factors of our complex society, not just the humanitarian and the economic. We are both well-off and poor. Some of us have healthy lifestyles while others live with severely compromised immune systems. Our public health system could be better but private business is coming to the party.

The importance of understanding.

There are no easy answers. We need to live with difficult trade-offs. In the normal run of things, different factions would be pulling in different directions. There would be protests. There would be fractious debate.

But none of that has happened. We have accepted with humility and grace that we need to do what we need to do.

And the reason? We understand. We understand the reasoning behind the decisions that government is taking. Thanks to President Ramaphosa, the reasoning could not be clearer.

As a result, we have all fallen into position. Willingly.

That is remarkable in South Africa.

Learner Leadership is required next.

The next step in this unexpected journey is going to be tricky: economic intervention. Globally, it has not been handled well in the past. With the Credit Crisis of 2008, then the subsequent bailouts, only the least deserving benefitted: the banks.

How will things pan out this time? It is a unique situation because we are all in this together. Rich, poor, East, West, Developed, Emerging.

We need to tread carefully because the fallout is potentially catastrophic. There is no place for hubris, vanity and propaganda.

But there is the potential for something different to happen this time. There is good reason to continue doing as South Africa’s leaders are – following the expertise.

Adopt what I call Learner Leadership. In every moment, those who are best qualified should be allowed to step forward. Our usual leaders must defer to their authority. Learner Leadership is a blend of opposites. Of the master and the pupil. Of confidence and humility.

We need to be agile. We need to think on our feet, in the moment.

All this was unthinkable just three weeks ago. But now, in this crisis, we have on overarching mission. We are all pulling in the same direction.

It’s a unique situation.

Leadership is about aspiration.

Three weeks ago, we didn’t appreciate our freedom. Now, stripped of it, South Africans are coming together in an extraordinary way. We are working together with a spirit that the US and the UK does not have.

Note what’s going on. There is no room for ideology. There is no room for the polished and the cast-in-stone. We need to work with the facts. And when we don’t have enough facts, we need to work with what we’ve got, in the here-and-now.

Leadership is about aspiration. South Africa aspires, more than anything, to be one country – and a functioning one.

We are making a virtue of necessity. Locked down, out of sight, a spirit emerges. Already we are showing extraordinary results.

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