We often learn the most about leadership by observing our leaders in times of crisis. As world leaders try to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19, they must simultaneously do two opposite and difficult tasks: to prepare their country for significant risks and to avoid causing panic.
What we see as a result are multiple test cases in crisis leadership, as several different countries face similar versions of the same problem and react with significantly different approaches and results.
By focusing on the COVID-19 response on three continents – by specifically examining China, Italy and the United States – there are clear lessons on different aspects of managing the epidemic. These lessons are not only useful to other countries as they manage their COVID-19 responses, but they also provide valuable examples for leaders in all fields.
China shows limits of “COMMAND & CONTROL” and benefits of decisive action
Even before the COVID-19 epidemic, the Chinese government was widely deemed to have significant control capacity, using vast state authority and an extensive surveillance program. As the starting point for COVID-19, the Chinese government’s efforts to control the virus have been watched worldwide.
China has responded with what the World Health Organization has called “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” including the closure of manufacturing sectors , sharing information on a large scale, carrying out mass tests and quarantining millions of people. The Chinese government has made the decision to absorb a significant economic cost to contain COVID-19 rather than potentially lose control and the result has been effective – the number of new cases has steadily decreased in recent weeks.
This is an example of the advantage of command and control leadership and 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. Atlantic newspaper documented how local Chinese authorities underreported the spread of COVID-19 to the federal government, as Wuhan province only reported the outbreak weeks after it started and downplayed the likelihood of human transmission until the whistleblowers came forward and were subsequently punished. This delay cost China precious time to contain the initial epidemic.
When people are afraid to come forward to tell the truth and are discouraged from speaking out, critical information often does not reach leadership until the problem has escalated. Although it cannot be known with certainty, the COVID-19 epidemic may have been contained earlier under different leadership conditions.
Italy shows danger of slow response and lack of coordination
The epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe has been Italy, which has seen a rapid increase in cases in the past two weeks – the number of cases even jumped 50% in a single day on March 1.
Partly because the epidemic in Italy has intensified so rapidly, the response of the Italian government has been inconsistent. CNN reported that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte admitted that “not entirely correct”, the management of a hospital in northern Italy contributed to the epidemic, but even as the virus spread, the Italian government and tourism officials tried to make it clear that everything was under control and the situation was as usual.
Barely two days later, Italy intensified its intervention considerably, closing schools, sporting events and tourist sites, like China. Today, the country is locked down. These rapidly different messages from the Italian government have created confusion and distrust for both citizens and tourists.
The lesson is clear: in a crisis, leaders can create panic and distrust when they quickly change their message. This is communication my dear Giuseppe . It seems that the country’s officials have underestimated the potential spread of the virus and that various groups and stakeholders were not acting in coordination. When important problems strike, leaders must be careful not to say something that they will eventually contradict later.
The United States is trying to control the narrative
US exposure to COVID-19 is relatively limited, but the threat has increased in recent days and the country is on alert and preparing for the worst. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has warned Americans to prepare for a possible epidemic since February 25, and Vice President Mike Pence has been assigned to lead the crisis.
Even President Donald Trump’s allies will likely admit that this challenge is out of step with his leadership trends. President Trump likes to control the narrative surrounding his administration and tries to avoid unfavorable coverage. This leads him to minimize the problems in winning the public relations battle, as he did in late February in response to a sudden drop in the stock markets.
In the business world, trying to control the narrative is a common way to respond to public adversity, and it can work when there is no major divergence from the underlying facts. Just as a struggling startup leader could do, the U.S. government has tried to alleviate concerns and assure Americans that COVID-19 has already been contained.
However, the virus does not respond to public perception or communication from the vice president. Although the future of COVID-19 in America is unclear, the President’s response may not be realistic in hindsight if the virus follows the same escalation pattern as in China and Italy.
Crisis management is perhaps the most difficult test for leaders. This is particularly true for a case like COVID-19, which has no precedent or comparable historical solution and where the threat is constantly evolving.
Leaders in all fields can learn from it: problems are better anticipated in environments of trust and transparency, challenges are better confronted with coherent, decisive and coherent action. They also need to realize that winning communication through promises that are not as reassuring in the short term is not a long term solution. Only time will tell exactly how effective world leaders have been and which strategies have produced the best results.
By Acceleration Partners – Translated from English