Will leaders help to fight the pandemic to its end?

Leaders are key players in determining the success or failure of coordinated tasks and organisational initiatives. Leaders are there to provide direction to their followers.

Some interesting leadership quotes

  • ‘Africa will rise or fall on the quality of its leadership.’ (Kenneth Kaunda)
  • ‘an army of sheep led by a lion can defeat an army of lions led by a sheep’ and
  • ‘a leader is the one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way,’

All these and many more quotes show how important leadership is in our firms, societies and nations, let alone the fight against COVID-19.


The deadly Corona Virus (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan in December 2019, then spread in different parts of China, and gradually became a global pandemic in March 2020 (Shaw, Kim & Hua, 2020). Leadership is important during this time of unprecedented crisis. The crisis demands agility; firms, societies and nations with leaders who are good at quickly adapting to new changes are going to make it into the future. According to Renjen (2020), “organisations around the globe have showed remarkable agility, changing business models literally overnight: setting up remote-work arrangements; offshoring entire business processes to less-affected geographies; initiating multi-company cooperation to redeploy furloughed employees across sectors.” Leadership is at play.

The ability to embed rapid and nimble decision-making into company cultures will be equally important through crisis recovery and into the next normal (Renjen 2020). It must however be noted that managing in this environment characterised by rapid changes demands more from leaders.

Defining leadership

  • Leading people either in an organisation, institution or a country is a complex process with so many parts that will probably be defined differently in different societies. Leadership:
    • Is the process by which a person exerts influence over other people, inspires them, and directs their activities to help them reach their goals. Leadership is a process of exercising influence over an individual or a group.
    • It is also the process of influencing followers to work willingly towards reaching their goals.
    • Leaders do not rely on the use of force to influence people.
    • Instead, people willingly adopt the leader’s goal as their own goal.
    • According to these definitions, if anyone relies more on force and punishment, the person is a dictator, not a leader.

From these definitions three components (parts) of leadership can be seen namely:

The leader

The one who gets the process off the ground, that is, someone who makes sure that something happens. This is someone who rallies people to move towards the achievement, a common goal (Morgan, 2020). A business or a nation or a society will only survive if someone is leading the people. Leaders are individuals who take charge and who respond quickly and aggressively in the face of crises (Grayson & Speckhart, 2006)

The followers

An organised group of people who support and admire someone or a set of ideas or a vision.

The fundamental starting point of a leader is having a good understanding of human nature, such as needs, emotions, and motivation. Kouzes and Posner (2012) highlighted that caring for followers will allow them to move forward and achieve their goals. A leader must know his or her followers.

The situation

A given set of circumstances and environment (ie both internal and external), in which the organisation functions. Thus leaders need to constantly scan their environment to get the first-hand information on what is happening in their world. Leaders who are not readers have a lot of shortcomings.

Communication is crucial

Communication is very important, and leaders lead using two-way communication. It is worrisome that most leaders tell their followers to do as they say, not as they do.

Communication during a crisis calls for more transparency. A term “infodemic” has been used by the WHO Director General at the initial stage of the spread of the disease (Shaw, Kim and Hua, 2020). WHO colleagues have warned the tsunami of information, a situation in which social media is being used to paddle lies. It is quite surprising to note that other authorities are not constantly updating their citizens in the middle of this deadly pandemic. Communication enhances trust, which is the foundation of leadership.  It is very difficult to talk about leadership without trust.

Leaders must be able to provide clear and transparent data and information for all citizens to respond accordingly based on data analysis or science. Media needs to be objective and fair in providing information and prevent any misleading facts or confusing statements. It is the responsibility of all leaders across the globe to come up with robust media policies to control the information that their followers are consuming on a daily basis.

Leadership in Africa

Leadership in Africa has been characterised by protracted under-investment in public health and essential research, as well as mismanagement of public finances. Most leaders in Africa have for a long time depended heavily on other nations’ health care systems. Instead of investing in their health care system, they often spend millions of dollars treating themselves and their children in foreign countries. A million-dollar question to ask is; are the leaders now more important than the followers who elected them? Lockdown measures which have restricted movement from one country to the other have seen most leaders running around trying to fix this mistake.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

The Five Practices of exemplary leadership discussed in this section were adopted from Kouzes and Posner (2012). When making extraordinary things happen in organizations, societies or nations, leaders engage in what is known as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. These include;

• Modelling the Way

• Inspiring a Shared Vision

• Challenging the Process

• Enabling Others to Act

• Encouraging the Heart

Kouzes and Posner (2012) clearly highlighted that leadership is not a personal property of shining stars. The Five Practices are available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge—the challenge of taking people and organisations to places they have never been, of doing something that has never been done before, and of moving beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Modelling the way

Most leaders do not want to lead by example. They say certain things that are in contradiction to their actions. Titles are granted, but it’s one’s behaviour that earns him respect (Kouzes and Posner, 2012). It is unfortunate that, amidst COVID-19 pandemic, other leaders were encouraging their citizens not to wear masks and observe social distancing. To effectively Model the Way, leaders must first be clear about their own guiding principles. Eloquent speeches about common values are not good enough. Leaders’ deeds are far more important than their words when constituents want to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say (Kouzes & Posner, 2012).

Leading by example is more effective than leading by command. If people see their leader working hard while preaching hard work, they are more likely to follow (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). One of the best ways for leaders to prove that something is important is by doing it themselves and setting an example. Some leaders have imposed lockdown measures and went on to break the regulations. Are these lockdown measures being imposed on followers alone? Are leaders immune to these regulations? Is COVID-19 being spread by followers alone? These are questions which need to be answered by leaders who are serious about being exemplary leaders.

Inspiring a shared vision

Where there is no vision, people perish (Proverbs 29:18). Every organisation or social movement begins with a dream. The dream, or vision, is the force that creates the future. It is crystal clear that leaders who are not dreamers will not be able to achieve excellent results in the face of this pandemic. The future is built today. It is high time global leaders should come up with a shared vision on how to tackle this pandemic. This should be pivoted by unity among world leaders; everyone should sing from the same hymn. The time for blame game is over. Failure to support each other in the fight against this deadly pandemic will constantly lead to fresh outbreaks and delays in the opening up of the economy. Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). Leaders need to make something happen, to change the way things are, to create something that no one else has ever created before. Leaders should always know that they cannot command commitment; they have to inspire it.

Challenging the process

Challenge is the crucible for greatness. Every single personal-best leadership case involves a change from the status quo (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). The pandemic has changed the ways we used to do things. Things will never be the same again. Given the market uncertainties, companies relying on conventional wisdom may discover that the world they knew and want to recreate is no longer there (Renjen, 2020). And the way in which leaders created plans and playbooks in the past may no longer be relevant, especially if they were focused internally. Leaders venture out; they don’t sit idly by waiting for fate to smile on them. At the core of this whole process is innovation. Leaders should continuously invent new ways of doing things in their respective organizations and nations. This will go a long way in ensuring resilience during this crisis.

Leaders are pioneers, willing to step out into the unknown (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). But leaders aren’t the only creators or originators of new products, services, or processes. In fact, it’s more likely that they’re not (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). Innovation comes more from listening than from telling. During this pandemic, leaders need to listen to experts in the field of science. Some leaders have decided not to listen to experts, and this is a worrisome development given the fact that science will never be substituted for politics. Leaders have to constantly be looking outside themselves, and their organizations and nations for new and innovative products, processes, services and new ways of doing things. Champions who come up with new ideas must be rewarded.

Enabling others to act

According to Kouzes and Posner (2012), a grand dream doesn’t become a significant reality through the actions of a single person. It requires a team effort, solid trust and strong relationships. Leadership becomes easy when the leader leads by empowering others. Leaders, after assuming their offices, should immediately start to train people who are under their care. In the UK, when the Prime Minister got sick, other leaders had to take care of the situation. Leaders who think they will die in their positions are a disgrace to humankind. Training others lessens the burden on the leaders. Other nations have also empowered their citizens to participate in self-isolation through the provision of relevant health guidelines and information. The pandemic requires an inclusive approach in which everyone is involved since the virus affects all people.

Encouraging the heart

The climb to the top is arduous and steep (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). People become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted, and are often tempted to give up. There are times when one feels like he or she cannot soldier on. These are the times that call for real leadership where leaders hold the hands of their followers and encourage them to move forward no matter how hard it may seem to be. Genuine acts of caring draw people forward. The pandemic has left many people, especially front-line workers exhausted, frustrated and disenchanted. Some have even committed suicide after they felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Recognition is the most powerful currency that can be used by leaders to encourage the heart, and it costs them nothing. Some leaders do not even want to say thank you to their followers; they are even prepared to die than to say thank you. That not leadership. Leaders need to recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.

The leadership style that will work the best during this crisis

Different countries have reacted to the pandemic in different ways. These differences are informed by varying styles of leadership and governance around the globe, (The conversation, 2020). Leadership also includes an understanding of when, where, and how to use more formal sources of authority and power, such as position or ownership.

“Scholars who examined the COVID-19 responses in China, Japan and South Korea, for example, found that there was systematic evidence that different governance decisions led to different results” (The Conversation, 2020).

Autocratic leadership style

The autocratic leader gives orders which must be obeyed by the subordinates. Thus, under this style, all decision-making power is centralized in the leader. Is this the right leadership style in the face of the deadly pandemic that has taken many lives of our beloved relatives?

In China, on 5th of February, a major decision was taken on “no one will be spared”, which enabled the government officials to enter into people’s house and check virus symptoms, (Shaw, Kim & Hua, 2020). This was regarded as a key turning point to detect new cases of affected people. Leaders should realize that it is important to identify all possible sources to stop further spreading of the disease. In China, QR code was introduced for all residents on February 18, and this was a good check to distinguish between the affected and non-affected people (Shaw et al. 2020). 

China also urged stricter control on entry to the country for all its returnees from foreign countries. This, together with the cancellation of flights to Beijing, allowed the authorities to manage the spread of virus.

In some nations such as Japan, schools were closed without enough time for all stakeholders to prepare. Everyone can agree that there is no time to consult a lot of stakeholders during a crisis time. Some decisions that are made are for the good of the people. The only effective way at the moment to prevent the spread of this novel coronavirus is to decrease personal contact among people and to increase personal hygiene, such as hand-washing. This has seen all nations imposing some lockdown measures, forcing people to stay home. Other nations that respect human rights more than anything were the hardest hit. However, the question remains; is autocratic leadership style the best during this crisis?

Democratic or participative leadership style

Democratic leaders make the final decisions, but they include team members in the decision-making process. For instance, the Korean government continued its vocal call and support for citizenry participation in personal hygiene practices and social distancing. Most governments across the world have involved all relevant stakeholders in decision making, as their input is deemed relevant.

This type of leader ranges from the person who does not take action without subordinates’ concurrence to the one who decides but consults with subordinates before doing so. They encourage creativity, and team members are often highly engaged in projects and decisions. Because participation takes time, this approach can slow decision-making, but the result is often good.  Writing about India’s handling of the new coronavirus, Amartya Sen said

“tackling a social calamity is not like fighting a war, which works best when a leader can use top-down power to order everyone to do what the leader wants — with no need for consultation.” The downside of democratic leadership is that it is not suitable for situations where speed or efficiency is essential. For instance, during a crisis, a team can waste valuable time gathering people’s input. The need to save lives has led to the adoption of autocratic style in some instances

Laissez-faire leadership

It is a leadership style that allows maximum freedom to followers.  A free-rein leader gives followers a high degree of independence in their operations. He or she depends largely on followers to set their own goals and the means of achieving them, and they see their role as one of aiding the operations of followers by furnishing them with information and acting primarily as a contact with the groups’ external environment. The author doesn’t recommend leaders to use this style in the wake of the deadly Corona virus unless they are dealing with followers who are highly educated, responsible and brilliant as well as having a strong desire and commitment to give their best to the fight against the virus. 

Situational leadership style

This means that leaders should choose the best leadership style for the right people. Outstanding leaders do not rely on the use of a single leadership style, instead, they develop the ability to use all styles of leadership and choose the best one for the circumstances (Aronoff & Baskin, 2011). This pandemic has seen different leaders responding with different strategies, and most of these strategies have worked very well. Situational leadership is called for since leaders can adapt to changes that are taking place in this volatile environment.


Shaw, R. Kim, Y.& Hua, J. (2020). Governance, technology and citizen behavior in pandemic: Lessons from COVID-19 in East Asia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2020.100090

Aronoff C.E., Baskin O.W. (2011) What Makes Leaders Effective?. In: Effective Leadership in the Family Business. Family Business Leadership Series. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

Renjen, P. (2020). COVID-19: How leaders can create a new and better normal.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. 5th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Morgan, J. (2020). What is leadership, and who is a leader? Available at https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2020/01/06/what-is-leadership-and-who-is-a-leader/

Grayson, D. & Speckhart, R. (2006). The Leader-Follower Relationship. Available at https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/lao/issue_6/pdf/grayson_speckhart.pdf

The Conversation (2020). Tanzania’s COVID-19 response puts Magufuli’s leadership style in sharp relief.