The ability to help individuals to frame and achieve their objectives and reach them, that which is called leadership, is perhaps the most transcending factor that makes all the difference in times of crisis. The great leaders are forged during trying times: when, due to circumstances that transcend their control, the population needs to resolve challenges beyond their personal capacities. The most effective leaders in history are those who build collective solidarity amid resolution of the problem. That is how the fame of Winston Churchill grew to attain superhuman proportions: his prior accident-prone history would not allow one to expect that he would be a great leader that his country, and the free world, would see as a light on the horizon even during the darkest moments.
Churchill was the key person at the crucial juncture, but not the only one. During the last ninety days, we have observed that Chancellor Merkel, whom many perceived as in the end phase of her influence, not only regained massive support in her country, but also became the symbol of vigor, clarity of mind and reasonableness. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, did likewise, as did her equivalent in Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. What distinguished them was never confusing their role nor entertaining secondary agendas: they devoted themselves to what corresponded to them and nothing more. Their success, and the recognition that they achieved in their nations consign it thus. The case of South Korea is emblematic: President Moon Jae-in faced decreasing approval but achieved a supermajority in his Parliament halfway through the pandemic due to the leadership that he exercised.
There are not many examples of such extraordinary accomplishment, but cases of failure are evident: those who dedicated their energies to seeking culprits instead of finding solutions. In situations of crisis, when the population calls for certainty and clarity of course, leaders may advance towards a prompt resolution, hindering permanent and inevitable decadence. On the collapse of apartheid, South Africa could have evolved in distinct directions, beginning with a slaughter of Whites. If rather than Nelson Mandela, the successor of F.W. de Klerk had been some of those who succeeded the country’s first Black president, that nation would have ended up in a violent twilight; Mandela was the one who made a peaceful and successful transition, the requisite leader at the precise moment.
It is impossible to minimize the magnitude of the crisis now yet more heightened because it combines the risk of contagion –and the fears and concerns accompanying it- with the sudden collapse of economic activity due to the recourse of sheltering in place as a strategy to contend with the virus. The Americans procured converting the crisis into new grounds for political dispute: rather than responding to the crisis, the U.S. Government persisted in its agenda of polarization, prolonging and rendering the suffering more acute. Crises call for adequate action before and for the specific circumstances: as Sweden and Germany demonstrate, there’s not a single response that is possible, each nation has its own particular characteristics, but all have need of a clear-cut and convincing line of action that transcends the every-day political tussle. And even more so, in that this concerns divided societies, what is required is an efficient government and one entertaining a long-term vision to confront obstacles without precedent. The nodal point is to win over the trust of the people in a government that demonstrates that it knows what it is doing and that, as a product of the latter, achieves the solidarity of the society. Some governments gained this; others were left wanting.
A recent survey * found that “too many people in too many countries do not trust their national leaders to act in their national interest or, at the extreme, even to hold fair elections.” The same survey displayed the enormous approval (90%) of the scientists, followed by military leaders and entrepreneurs. The reason for the lack of trust is reduced to the corruption or weakness of the governments and politicians, factors accentuated the younger the age of the surveyed.
Moments of crisis are perfect for comparing the manner in which distinct societies and persons respond to the same challenge: it is from this that nations differentiate on their intrinsic institutional solidity to deal with the challenges presenting themselves, independently of the quality of their leadership, and also of their leaders –in strong or weak nations- that emerge, as illustrated by the German Chancellor vis-à-vis Mandela, both successful under critical circumstances. Margaret MacMillan, the author of some of the most transcending books on the XX century, affirms that “history shows that those societies that survive and adapt best to catastrophes were already strong.” ** She exemplifies this by contrasting the U.K. and France in the face of the Nazi lashing in WWII.
The lesson is obvious: only countries with solid institutions surface unscathed from crises. This is also achieved by countries with the right leadership in place when the circumstances demand it. When both of these are absent, the future becomes ill-fated. It is key for leadership to stand up and unite the people.
* Tällberg Foundation’s “Democracy’s Temperature” was conducted from April 14 to 30, 2020, among 526 respondents from 77 countries.
**Economist May 9, 2020.