Three forms of Covid leadership

By John Drury

If the Covid pandemic has made one thing is clear, it is that we are interdependent in terms of risk and safety. So a collective response is required. From distancing, through ventilation, to vaccination programmes, decisions needed to be taken at the level of the whole community, society, and indeed the world. We need a coordinated response that prioritizes and supports the most urgent actions. Leadership is therefore essential. Three forms of leadership have been particularly evident over the course of the pandemic: identity leadership, coercive leadership, and laissez faire leadership. Only one of these is actually effective in enabling the collective response we need.

Identity leadership

This is true leadership, in that it leads to active engagement by ‘followers’. It attempts to create unity and a shared perspective on the problem and the solution, and to support effective action by the public. 

Assumptions of this approach: The public have the intention and capacity to do the right thing, if properly informed and supported. Understanding the public as part of the solution, not the problem. Treating the public as a resource and a partner.

Practices: Bring the public with you through engagement, promoting mitigations on the basis of shared identity and values. Embodying those values. Giving clear direction based on ‘who we are’ (shared interests, needs, and values). Regulations and rules (e.g., mask mandates) as a way of promoting norms and shared definitions of seriousness. Explaining the rationale behind measures. Working with community support groups, including mutual aid groups, by listening to them and supporting them materially. 

Examples: Haslam et al. offer several examples including Bonnie Henry, who focused on her connections with her fellow British Columbians get them to listen to and embrace the demanding course of action that she was proposing. But perhaps the most cited example is that of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern’s use of identity rhetoric to mobilize her citizens.

Pros and Cons: May require considerable time and effort. Finding the leaders who have the required skills, background and motivation. But over two decades of research on the social psychology of leadership suggests that this approach will get the most active engagement and results.

Coercive leadership

The ‘command and control’ approach to managing emergencies has a long history. It occurs where the authorities have given up with, or don’t try, the more painstaking practices of engagement — which include listening as well as talking. It represents a failure of leadership.

Assumptions of this approach: The public are a problem: they are wilfully obstructive or stupid or passive and ignorant.

Practices: As the public are assumed to be obstructive or stupid, forms of threat and punishment are foregrounded, including fines and imprisonment; and the mechanisms for such coercion are strengthened, such as surveillance and policing.

Examples: £10K fines for failing to self-isolate. Compulsory vaccination.

Pros and Cons: These approaches produce backfire effects among sections of the public, whereby the public health measures are perceived as impositions and become a site of struggle and resistance. Coercion creates long-term damage to the relationship with the authorities. It may lead to compliance in some people in the short-term, but in the longer term these people will be less likely to listen and engage with public health messages and policies.

Laissez faire leadership

This approach is the abdication of leadership. Under the guise of relying on public ‘common sense’ and ‘resilience’, it entails abandoning moral and practical support.

Assumptions of this approach: This approach assumes that correct understandings of risk and mitigation already exist in each individual’s ‘common sense’, that each individual is solely responsible for outcomes, and therefore that the public can be blamed (as ‘irresponsible’) when things go badly, providing a rationale for adopting the coercive approach instead.

Practices: Advice to ‘be cautious’, ‘stay alert’, and use ‘common sense’, instead of specific guidance. Emphasis on ‘personal judgement’. Dropping all rules and regulations. Limited material support.

Example: July 19th 2021 so-called ‘freedom day’ in the UK entailed dropping most of the rules and the mask mandate but failing to provide the public with the recommended education on risk and mitigation that would enable informed decisions.

Pros and Cons: ‘Common sense’ is a repository of competing ideas. Without clear guidance, exhortations like ‘be cautious’ are open to multiple interpretations: what does it actually mean in practice? Unlike rules specifying behaviour – such as ‘stay home’ – it’s not clear to do with this advice on ‘how to feel’. By individualizing judgements of risk, there is a danger of people seeing risk simply in personal terms rather than in terms of others (including those more vulnerable than themselves). Worse, insufficient material support (including proper compensation for staying home and support for safe schools) means that, even where people understand how to act safely, they don’t have the resources to do so. Without clear leadership representing the collective will and properly organized support to equip members of the public with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, this approach risks a chaotic and dangerous individualism.

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