The world is dealt a difficult time as COVID-19 ravages from nation to nation bulldozing familiar structures and unsettling previously comfortable zones in all spheres of human activities. It’s a global health crisis that has left every nation panting in want of precedent strategies and solutions as it spreads monstrous pangs on the souls of our community. From a wholly health crisis, COVID-19 has transformed as the most historic economic crisis of the 21st century, eclipsing any other in magnitude of impact. Nationhood is ultimately to be redefined now in continuation to human neighbourhood that is already redefined as predominantly virtual interactions at this time. Nations are suddenly again awakened to their unavoidable interconnectedness; when a crisis that began in a distant China city of Wuhan can bear so profound and devastating consequences on the psyche of nations; in business, education, religion, technology and travels.
In the United States, for instance, the pandemic has already induced a collapse in economic activity signalling a plunge of tax revenues of state and local government. Since most states operates the balanced budget rules, the implications are that lower revenues have to be offset by lower spending and budget cuts from state and local governments. This, predictably, will only worsen the economic situation while slowing down recovery except the Congress provides more federal support. Nigeria, a case reference for Africa is, though, very low in terms of access to credible data, but it’s evident that the economic pain could be protracted as nation struggles to contain the virus.
With the crisis, there are no better times to for all so saddled to demonstrate leadership in economy and politics. As leadership expert, Dr. John Maxwell once said; everything rises and falls on leadership. At all strata of life, leadership has to brace up; and accept the reality that, the demand for proactive responses from leaders has no regards for whether they are in the environment of advanced or developing economies, upstarts or start-ups, entrenched or emerging markets or large- or small-scale businesses. This is not the season to stay fixated on the magnitude of the crisis outcomes, it’s the time roll-up the sleeves and get to work. It’s the season when leadership effectiveness will be tested. Where there is no creative strategy coherence with the current narratives, iconic leaders in politics, business are about to lose their voices. Leaders must quickly rise to the task of exhibiting resilience by revisiting existing model and developing new ones in order to spark innovations for the emerging future. Former CEO of American Express captures this better when, after 9/11 attack, he said; “leadership reputations are made or lost during times of crises”.
Among many interventions COVID-19 has necessitated, leadership (I mean real leadership) interventions are a foremost requirement to help business and national communities overcome their limitations. This begins with proactive communication. When fear and uncertainties are rife, leadership must rise to the podium to communicate how it intends to navigate the people through the landmines littering the zones of business or governance. Truth is, proactive leadership is forged in crisis with no stone-cast approach to handling emergencies; a leader is expected to know when to oscillate between the persuasion and the firm command approach. Shift in approach will depend on the situation and whether the leader was previously aloof from the team, employee or citizens. Real leadership is, however, interactive and relational especially in crisis situation. The requirement for proactive communication stands out of the first aid box in crisis situations because emergencies that come with it create widespread gloom and fear, breed dilemma and leaves many unanswered questions. When leaders engage with the people, it helps to allay the fears by clarifying the complex and unresolved grey areas and then rally the team or citizens to a common direction.
When leadership, whether in business or politics goes taciturn, restraints is cast off and disenchantments of the led becomes the bigger crisis. Also, when communication is constructive and proactive in organizations, employee agitations are allayed. In Nigeria, citizens get agitated to reflect their disconnection when governance is taciturn. The most frustrating of all for people in crisis situation is to be left in disarray as to which options are on the table to collectively follow. People want clarity on the direction of engagement with the crisis even if it means the worse or death! Once direction is known and is sensed from the sincere pulse of the leadership, it’s often easy to surmount any crisis. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 was famous for his inaugural address in the midst of the Great Depression where he said; “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.” Leaders are to be honest about the challenges facing the nation, locality, company or team while focusing the spotlight on the available resources and projections that build hope of combating the threats. In businesses, leaders must recognize that the employees may be anxious about variety of issues including their health, finances, and, oftentimes, their jobs. It’s a time to demonstrate empathy through communication despite the scary realities with assurance that the storm can be navigated as a team.
When aloof, a leader may find it pretty difficult to earn the necessary trust and cooperation he needs, and the use of a firm command and control type would further widen the gulf between him and the led. Leadership proclivity in crisis situations is entrenched through effective communication by which he conveys the response to the crisis and demonstrates empathy to the different vulnerable segments. It’s not enough to have the right responses in place, communicating them to allay the confusions of the citizens does a great deal. The narratives pursued by the leader must be clear enough as to represent and demonstrate, with clear intensity, the collective will to find a way irrespective of the odds. Leaders in businesses, for instance, can best connect with the employee in this crisis situation by bringing to the fore consideration on their health and safety, altering policies to connect with varying family conditions
Communication is actually just the first tool among a set of creative spontaneity required from leaders in crisis times. Creative spontaneity will be proven by how the leader combs for and harnesses all resources for the best results at the shortest possible time. Understandably, effectiveness in leadership is enhanced by environments and systems which, in this case, leave most advanced economies and start-ups advantaged. In crisis times as this pandemic, systems and structures in environments can actually cave in due to the flux imposed by emergencies, making creative spontaneity as the universal resource available to all, irrespective of the status. Therefore, every leader in governments, organisations, SMEs, education, hospitals and churches will have their portfolio and credibility ratings tested in crisis times, in terms of how they spontaneously proffer creative solutions to resolve the challenges created by the pandemic. For instance, residents of Lagos State were unanimous in their commendation of the state Governor, Babajide Sanwoolu, for providing an ample example in how leaders should respond in crisis time. He had taken his time in explaining the gravity of the situations the state is facing, outlining the resources being deployed to battle the coronavirus and deploying them, thinking through for models and system to combat the epidemics and implementing same with tact and speed, and calling the constituents to act together from strong and compassionate selves. As it would turn out, leadership effectiveness in the state will ultimately be proven by the proactive efforts taken or not taken by the leadership of the Federal government. Unfortunately, there is the aspect of the citizen-leadership disconnect in Nigeria which, any proactive government, must begin to address with urgency and tact.
Leaders are also expected to demonstrate resilience and agility as they resort to timely adaptive strategies. In other words, leaders should know how to sustain a balance of commitment to variety of efforts and strategies, deployed at a time, without losing sight other innovative ideas while maintaining their steam. They should give up even when the best of their strategies fails. Whether as corporate entities or individuals, resilience is a needed tool for a leader that would retain or maintain their relevance at this time. These are seasons of make or break for leaders; when previous industry leaders are displaced. Voices will be lost for others to gain in the face of emerging business templates and models and governance realities occasioned by COVID-19. Businesses have to rapidly reconfigure to operate in new ways by considering different array of new operational priorities, hurdles and imminent business sustainability risks. They need to adjust to changes in clients’ demand and supply volume, issue of employee productivity and the attendant health and security issues. These decision-making nodes require leadership; proactive leaders, who can act with tact and speed to mitigate operational resilience issues while laying a proper platform for future operations.
Business leaders must also exercise high level discretion in decision-making by balancing the micro and macro intelligences and indices available to them in a manner that doesn’t contribute to more volatility of the environment. They should realize that, in another clime, when people are without jobs and there is high unemployment bringing about low purchasing power and hunger in the land, businesses and governance are ultimately affected. Lack of jobs and low purchasing powers imply low patronage for products and service and low tax revenues for government. Because of the direct relationship between employment, purchasing power and the vibrancy of an economy, the issue of staff lay-offs as a response to reducing overheads should be the last bell to be rung in any series of any leader’s proactive responses. In reality, a leader’s objectivity and sincerity of commitment to getting the crisis resolved on must be balanced with the understanding that, no matter how much considerations leaders in government or business have given, it might never be seen to be good enough by the victims in crisis times.
This is why, notwithstanding the consequences, leaders in business and governments would still have to make different inconvenient decisions including staff lay-offs, prioritisation of citizens’ welfare benefits including business support packages, lockdown of businesses or religious centres, among multitudes of decision options, in order to keep sailing. This is why one cannot quickly discount the actions of the management of Access Bank in the leaked video that got twitter wild with criticism. In crisis times, proactive leadership can be spelt by how a leader chooses between battling the storms and gasping for breath for a long time or throwing off some into the raging storm in order to achieve stability. The question for sincere leaders can the ship still sail without throwing anything off the ship if the storm abates? Can the ship endure the storm? Will the ship be stable after some are thrown out despite the storm? Based on the facts available to all stakeholders, will the victims accept good fate that throwing them overboard, in the long run, proves to be the best and the only right decision (or it was just a mere façade meant to feed the selfish lens of the leaders and the organization)? Answers to these questions can help a leader in how to make difficult decisions, about employees or citizens, and proactively implement them at this time. It’s actually obvious to many that crisis times are not a season of moderate change and timely and creative leadership are direly deployed. The consequences of actions are going to be measured in the immediate and in the long terms. One can predict that the approach by the Nigerian leadership at national level to the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of engagement with the citizens is unlikely to receive their overall commendation after the pandemic, even if it has acted in a manner that gets some to believe that it could have been so much worse. This, of course, is one of action consequences leaders should consider as oversights and not exert worries over.