Our Western leadership has failed miserably at managing the risks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Not one government in Europe or the Americas can claim a single success in protecting their populations not only from the pandemic but also from the consequences of their botched lockdown measures. The bumbling, stumbling farce that has become our government reactions could be likened to the Keystone Kops: falling all over themselves, frenetically failing and getting up to trip once again. For my 2020 year-end review, I am cataloguing many of the KeystoneCorona crises caused by the failure of our authorities to implement basic risk management tools. Part 4 of this series looks at how leadership drifted from decisions based on strategy, vision and inspiration to a string of pedantic virtue postures initiated by righteous zealots.
I have been arguing in this series that the large number of deaths from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic were, to a large part, due not to the virus, but to the incompetent KeystoneCorona leadership most Western countries are suffering under. Failure to manage risks, take the hard decisions and inspire through action are tragic shortcomings that decades of affluence and ‘governance via precaution’ had been able to mask during the good times, but in a time of crisis like a global pandemic, we need to ask: Do we have the leaders we deserve? When many Asian economies have regained their stride, we are still bumbling and stumbling off the edge of a cliff (in some cases for a third wave of lockdowns and funerals).
Leading by Virtue of their Virtue
In a millennial world of purpose-driven decisions, every food choice, every action, every utterance has to be linked to some virtue overtly expressed (in part for self-fulfilment and, in equal part, for righteous condemnation of others). Our judgements of our leaders centre not on their competence or actions, but how well they can identify and express the values we hold dear. The most popular leaders at present, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, are widely loved (outside of their countries) because of how they identify themselves (posture) with voluminous virtues that they overtly use to shield their management weaknesses and sheer incompetence.
Joe Biden got elected US president on the platform of his virtue (most who voted for him did not know or did not agree with any political policy he expressed). He was just a “normal Joe” offering Americans a rest from the day-to-day noise from the moral train-wreck in the White House. But should a leader get down into the muddy business of governing or merely serve the public need for moral platitudes? With Biden, even the common sense act of wearing a face-mask has become a virtue signal. The emperor may indeed have no clothes, but my he sounds like he’s concerned about what I care about.
Sustainability is a key virtue in today’s narrative which has allowed these virtue-mongers to commit to saving the world regardless of the suffering their posturing will inflict. So European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, is pushing a Green Deal to show how wonderfully sustainable her ideal of Europe can be, and that involves shuttering industries that emit carbon, banning any synthetic chemical that’s remotely “toxic” (their words) and ensuring that Europe will continue to import far more food and feed than their handcuffed farmers will be able to produce. Sustainability for a leadership built only on moral posturing is founded on a negative polarity (“I’m good because I’m not like you“). This results invariably in the use of precaution as the main policy tool (decision by denial: if a vocal part of the population perceive this pesticide as bad, let’s remove it then). We can solve climate change by removing all activities, industries and lifestyles we feel are below our righteous self-perception.
This leadership by the virtue of virtue is an emotional platforming which is nearly impossible to confront with reason. If I were to question Ursula or Joe over their plans to shut down entire industries until the lights go out on the less fortunate, I am a Big Oil climate denier needing to be shamed out of the room. And if people are defending better agricultural yields via technology, it isn’t hard to find them written off as Monsanto shills. Today if I oppose the coronavirus lockdown-first mentality, I am quickly kicked out of the sandbox accused of being, I wish I were making this up, a “COVID-19 denier”. Such leadership by the virtue of virtue, combined with precautionary decisions by denial creates a vacuous ruse manipulated by intolerant zealots (posing as saints).
Popular opinion (manufactured by the cunning) defines what’s good and fills the void that leadership, inspiration and courage once occupied. Curiously, today’s narrative has defined “nature” as good and “man” (industry) as evil. Leadership then, to be virtuous, must remove innovations that go against nature. With this decision by denial, there is no positive approach, no promotion of innovations, no risk-based protection of societal goods. There is no real leadership. But can you manage more than your ethical posture if your only management skill is the precautionary removal of goods deemed to be a threat?
When SARS-CoV-2 hit these benign kingdoms of affluent goodness, those who led by the virtue of their virtue were quick to sound their commitment to protecting the sanctity of all lives. The source of the virus was identified in a wide variety of cases of man’s violation of nature (ecosystem destruction, deforestation, climate change, chemicals and yes, glyphosate). If this is the only model that has guided their decisions, all I can say is “Heaven help us”.
What Should a Leader Do?
Political instinct (survival) is not a natural bedfellow with leadership in the face of a pandemic, the need to take hard decisions and be honest with a population expecting to be kept safe. But what should a leader do? Leadership in the vacuous virtue-pit tends to be defined by what not to do (and who not to be), so it might be an idea to first look at the KeystoneCorona leadership failures and postulate what should have been done.
- Promising populations they would be safe (if they just washed their hands)? This went on tragically for two months when people should have been told the truth: that this was going to be bad and that they needed to prepare for the worst.
- Set a time-frame to return to normal? Of course people want to go back to the days they are comfortable with, but “normal” is not coming back. A leader should redefine objectives, set a new vision and take advantage of emerging opportunities (in the corporate world, leaders are born in times of uncertainty). Leadership should be forward looking (precautionary puppets want to go back to the ‘good ol’ days’).
- Blame others for the problems (from China to scientific advisers to people congregating in large bubbles)? Again … No! Excuses are for people accustomed to losing whereas leaders should inspire others through action – continually moving forward.
- Protect your tribe and build walls? Leaders need to build alliances and partnerships … they need to work together. Five days before Christmas, when a new variant of the coronavirus was spreading in the UK, 40 countries effectively sealed the British borders within 24 hours rather than sharing research and data to fight the virus together. The absence of cooperation during this pandemic is indicative of widespread failed leadership. There is only room for one on the virtue pedestal so don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
- React strongly when public panic ensues? In a 24-hour social media-driven news cycle, there is no end to lurking disasters and cataclysmic Armageddons inciting the crowds. ‘When fools rush in’ to feed the beast or the thirsty mob without proper advice, strategy, scenarios or evaluation of consequences, then farcical management failure beckons. This is what happened in the KeystoneCorona month of March when almost every European country did nothing for months and then all sailed into lockdowns within a week (doing it again during the 24-hour isolation of the UK in December).
- The solution to any uncertainty is precaution (better safe than sorry)? This was the source of the greatest COVID-19 risk management failures in 2020 and a section of this series will be dedicated to it. Decision by denial in the face of uncertainty can lead to greater consequences which future generations will have to pay for at unimaginable costs.
Here are some basic management rules many of our leaders haven’t figured out … as they concentrate their corona-speeches on the sanctity of life.
- Learn from your mistakes. If the lockdowns didn’t work the first time, enlightened leaders might want to try something else before prescribing the same painful medication again (especially at the beginning of winter).
- Benchmark from success stories. When countries like South Korea, China, Taiwan and Thailand applied tracking tools to suppress super-spreader events, maybe some Western leaders should benchmark what works and add these tools to their half-hearted test and trace attempts.
- Broaden your expert advice sources. A section of this series will be devoted to this. If you only take advice from healthcare experts and statisticians, then should we be surprised if the only tools in your toolbox are lockdowns and sealed borders? When French regulators rushed in to seal their ports from UK traffic, it didn’t take long for several logistics experts to come in to educate them. Ignorance in governance usually comes from limited advice and poor scenario building.
- Know your population before selling a strategy. The stumbles and tumbles from the bumbling British leadership has been face-palmable since the start of the pandemic (but terribly tragic for its citizens). The advisers on the UK SAGE committee surely don’t leave their ivory towers very often. For example, when they decided to close the bars at 10pm, did they not realise that they would merely be moving the parties out onto the streets making policing bubbles all the more challenging? Then they imprisoned students in their dorms because, well, only 25% of students suffer from mental health issues during their studies.
- Engage and empower to earn trust. Agency is crucial in establishing trust. Citizens need to buy into any decision (to be part owners in the process) if authorities are to successfully implement policies (otherwise rules will be made and people will simply break them). Governments who don’t trust their populations usually don’t earn their respect when they try to enforce public safety measures.
Western leadership has been, by and large, an unmitigated disaster and with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, its citizens have paid dearly with their lives, economic security, mental health and hope for future prosperity. Western affluence has dissipated, its global influence waning and its trust in leadership diminished. As long as our leaders use virtue and emotionally righteous posturing as their reason to act or not act, they’ll candy-coat their failures with moral platitudes … and the rest of the world will just move on.
That’s not leadership and we deserve better. Then again those bumbling Keystone Cops never really kept the peace either (but at least we had a good laugh).