The moment for leadership is now

The moment for leadership is now

Part 1 -Introduction
Crisis always shifts people’s attention abruptly to the quality of their leaders. We are seeing this now in Lesotho when the country is confronted with the political uncertainty due to the continuous in-fights within the major ruling party of the coalition government. This might result in the collapse of the current government. The overwhelming spread of Covid-19 and the alarming collapse of economic activity worldwide have people in all quarters looking to leaders for guidance — and often being left far from reassured by what they see.

Why do people give so much more attention to their leaders in such moments? Leadership experts usually explain that when people are terrified, they grasp for certain things: a model of resolute confidence to calm their nerves, a clear thinker to outline the right course of action, a decisive actor who wastes no time dithering. In time of crisis like this, we need visionary and effective leaders who can bring effective change and provide solutions.

We need leaders who can lead from the front and are able to rebuild confidence and provide hope to their citizens. Leaders who are able to recognise that, their people need them to understand their anxieties and gently help them rebuild confidence before you expect them to perform to their best ability.  Leaders that are able to define and explain what the reality is, are able to outline an overarching strategy and get the big ideas right, and then provide hope to the citizens.

All this is true. But the question is, do we have such leaders at the moment in our country? Do we have clear thinkers who could calm our nerves and outline the right course of action when we are faced with the most deadly and invisible enemy in the form of Covid-19? Do we have visionary and effective leaders that can bring effective change and solutions to our problems?

Are these leaders able to recognise and understand the people’s anxieties? Are they able to define and explain the magnitude of the problem and provide hope to the nation? Are they able to inspire, influence, and mobilise the nation to unite against the common enemy — the virus? Are these leaders able to go beyond party politics, because the virus has no political party line when it attacks, it attacks everybody, rich or poor?

One wonders if we really do have such leaders. But what many students of leadership miss is that people also know that any crisis is a time of uncertainty and ambiguity, when big changes are happening. They suspect that rules will change, priorities be reordered, and that some of those who used to be up will find themselves down. And they want leaders who can be trusted to protect their interests (which is the common good of all), not advance a petty agenda of the leader’s own or their cronies.

The past two years, the current government has failed to demonstrate this leadership altitude. Good examples of its failure are clearly revealed in the manner it handled the farmers complaints on the wool and mohair issue, the teachers’ salaries, the unfair “so called upgrading” of the public servant positions, its politicisation of the security sector, the interference in the independence of the judicial system, the abuse of human rights, and appalling allegations of corruption and murders. 

The erosion of the key state institutions that are at the core to the protection of our young democracy, e.g the judiciary system, the security sector, the public service, the parliament. etc. The government of the day has ignored the citizens’ cry and pretended that everything was normal. People want leadership that focuses on practical solutions – not motivated by ideology, let alone political considerations and self-interest. What our political leaders forget is that people need leadership and things need management. It is dangerous to get it the other way round.

  1. The emergence of Covid-19
    The emergence of Covid-19 has demonstrated that many leaders of the world have come up short on all these requirements. Covid-19 has also underscored that our institutions must focus more on improving how they are led and efficiently managed. The problem of our political leadership is that they seem not to understand the difference of the two synonyms. In any enterprise, good management means seeing that work is done in the best way to achieve an organisation’s objectives. But figuring out what those objectives should be and orchestrating the capacity for collective performance with the right players in place is the province of leadership. As the classic expression goes, management is doing things right— leadership is doing the right things right. Figuring out the right things to do has always been difficult because it involves judgment and strategic vision. Our leadership have failed to do the right things right by neglecting the health sector for too long by not giving it the priority it deserves.
  2. In the case of Lesotho, can we confidently say that the so called National Command Centre which is entrusted to lead and manage the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, do have a strategic vision, and understand the magnitude of the problem? Are the leaders in charge of the process doing the right things right? Do they have the right players in place to lead collectively and manage the crisis efficiently? Do they have a clear road map of how to handle this crisis and does the nation understand and is aware of it? Is there a clear communication strategy? Is there a clear understanding of the roles of the scientists, the health professionals, the citizens and the political leadership, who is to do what? Do we have the finances, material and human resources in place?
    Have we made sure that our health professionals who are on the first point of care are protected, emotionally, mentally, and psychologically prepared to handle the crisis? Are all the logistics to respond to the pandemic in place, remember we are dealing with a dangerous virus, are there adequate equipment required both protective and medical? Do we have a clear outlined national strategic preparedness and response plan? Does the National Command Centre have a risk management and a monitoring and evaluation plan in place? What is transpiring at the National Command Centre at the moment, indicates lack of unpreparedness as a result of poor leadership.
    It also requires trade-offs. But the challenge has become much greater given the modern world’s unprecedented level of connectivity and interdependence, and hence complexity. The problem with our political leadership is that they are full of anger, vengeance, bitterness, selfishness and greed. They are also corrupt. They are preoccupied with accumulating wealth instead of building a legacy. Joining politics for them is not to be a servant of the people but to acquire wealth. They spent most of their time figuring out how best they can loot the nation’s wealth. Even in moments of crisis when their nations need them most to shield them, and give a sense of hope that things will be fine, the leadership is busy thinking and crafting how much they can easily loot. They use the moment of crisis as an opportunity to divert the resources that are supposed to help the nation to themselves. It is a sad situation.
  3. The challenges Covid-19 brings to the Leadership
    In times of crisis you get two types of leaders. There is one who inspires confidence, one who seizes the crisis and uses it as an opportunity to lift you to achieve certain goals. The other type of leader exacerbates the crisis and leaves you on a losing streak. The Covid-19 pandemic challenges traditional ideas of leadership and strategic planning. In responding to this crisis, leaders should first decide how they go about finding solutions. The way a problem is approached depends on the kind of problem it is. A simple problem can be solved by individual analysis and an ideal solution applied by command and control. Covid-19 is a complex, urgent, uncertain, dangerous and volatile problem.
    It requires the capacity to learn rapidly and allow the technical health professionals to lead. The political leadership need to inspire confidence by mobilising all the resources required by the health professionals to respond effectively to the pandemic. Politicians must understand that in times of crisis and uncertainty, facts matter most and facts provide clarity. Political leaders must listen very carefully to the advice of a wide range of experts and specialists and not to play politics. Covid-19 is not about playing cheap politics, it is about people’s lives and not about individuals’ personal interests or an opportunity to make political scores and gains.  The nation needs answers, a sense of clarity and clear direction, which is cemented by a sense of unity and purpose.  
  4. The complexity of Covid-19
    Covid-19 is more than a medical crisis. It brings other severe effects like economic downturn on a scale equaling the great depression of the 1930s. We must understand that complex problems have interwoven causes and effects. They cannot be solved solely by linear, logical, analytical thinking, or by mathematical modelling alone. Action in one area, to sustain employment for example, may have unintended consequences elsewhere, for example on fiscal targets. People cry about the economic impact and their jobs, they forget that the economic situation can be fixed but lives of people cannot be fixed once they are lost. There is no single right answer to Covid-19. There are many possible answers, some better than others, each bringing their own problems. But at the centre of all these answers is to save the lives of people, which is the ultimate goal of all our actions and efforts. Most answers require behavioural change, our attitude towards the virus which is notoriously hard to achieve. Solutions emerge from the advice and insights of a wide range of experts, specialists and advisors.  Advisors need to present their findings honestly and courageously. Leaders need to be able to hear, evaluate and synthesise advice from a range of sources.
  5. What we Know about Covid-19
    We know that Covid-19 virus started in China in the city of Wuhan and it is part of a family of viruses called coronaviridae that infect animals and people. It can cause symptoms very similar to influenza illness (fever and dry cough, fatigue, aches and pain and nasal congestion). It can lead to severe cases resulting to serious respiratory disease, and even pneumonia. We also know that it spreads from person to person rapidly. At the moment there is no cure or vaccine found yet. The most effective interventions to slow down the spread of a virus is through reducing contact between people through social distancing such as lockdown on public movement. Containment of the virus is strengthened by testing, contact tracing and quarantine. Over time the number of people infected should reduce, with fewer deaths and lower demand for intensive care. For these interventions to be effective, health and care services must be able to cope with demand. It is critical that all ‘front line’ workers should be provided with protective clothing and equipment.
    Delays in imposing social distancing can greatly increase the number of infections. As Lenin observed ‘there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen’. Therefore, at times of crisis like this, urgency demands responsive action and leaders must make timely decisions. The danger is that they may assume the problem is simple and that they can act independently and impose solutions that have not been thought through just like our National Command Centre in Lesotho. Urgency can be the autocracy and a desire to control, cancelling out the benefits that would come from listening to and synthesising the advice of others. The best motto is isolate the virus by containing it in one area and it will die. This means quarantining the infected persons in one area and health workers in designated areas to avoid family contamination.
    (To be continued next week) Dr John Dzimba
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