Two months observing successful “Corona-Leaders” and five traits they have in common

by Didier Marlier on Sunday April 19th, 2020

For 25 years, I have advised leaders on how to adapt their style to disruptions and, like everybody else, I never thought I would witness what we see with Covid-19.

The past two months, I have observed the “Corona-Leaders” who rose to the occasion and make a huge difference for their country, their business or, more humbly, for those they love! I confess not to observe those leaders whose failure to protect their people was, sadly, predictable and materialized.

“Corona-Leaders” (as I came to nickname them) share, for most, five traits in common (if you prefer watching than reading, here is my 9’54’’ on Gerd Leonhard’s recent Webinar):

  • They lead, even when “they don’t know”: Those leaders challenge the millenary orthodoxy following which a leader’s license to operate should be their superior knowledge about and control of the situation. Like the Swiss Government members (Federal Council) who made it clear from the start of the crisis that they never would have expected anything of the sort, Corona-Leaders were unprepared for it but took the lead, proceeding by trial and error and full transparency. In Switzerland, where I live, far from creating panic, this humility and vulnerability created a huge wave of sympathy, respect and support for the country’s leaders.
  • They reduce the Power Distance: If those leaders take time to reflect and analyse the results of their “Trail & Error” tactics, they understand the state of concern, fear or panic their people are in. Consequently they stay present, visible and reachable, despite social distancing and other confinement. One of my client is Exec Board member of a large multinational. From the early days of the crisis, he randomly and daily calls 20/30 random people in his organization, around the World. The conversation is genuine and authentic, between a leader who wants to know how his people are living under fire and, in return, opens-up on how it is for him. Of course, he will never reach the tens of thousands of people in his organization but the rumour has already done the job. There isn’t a single employee who hasn’t heard about his calls and none of them would be taken by surprise if he did call them!
  • They take a principled and personal stand on their people’s concern: Because such leaders are genuinely empathetic, they know and are able to address (which doesn’t mean solve) their people’s concerns. And they will take a clear, principled and personal stand on these. I saw iFood (one of Brazil’s fastest growing company) top management take a clear stand: We will not lay people off because of Covid-19! A few days later, Joe Kaeser, CEO of Siemens, took a similar public position. What do you think is the impact of such impactful statements of the top leaders on their people? How do you think the public, their suppliers and customers will see them?
  • Walk the talk: This is not specific to the crisis, but Corona-Leaders are aware they will be scrutinized on their behaviours. Unlike the two Health Ministers of New-Zealand and Scotland, urging people to stay home just to be caught by paparazzi in their secondary residences. Or like this football star going strong on social media to ask English people to respect the confinement rules and be caught (literally) trousers down with two escort ladies and a friend he had invited for a great moment of joy… One of the professionals was so disgusted by this lack of integrity that she leaked the pictures the following day! Corona-Leaders are not in for a communication nor P.R. exercise: they are the message, they live it, breathe it, behave it!
  • They prepare themselves to reinvent Economy!: Corona Leaders are acutely aware that Covid-19 may just be a “wavelet” compared to the tsunamis which could hit us soon after:
    • Alimentary: What will happen if the farmers are finally (and too late) listened to when they say the Food Supply chain may be broken because they were unable to harvest? The toilet paper craze might provide a preview of the looming disaster!
    • Inequalities: Do we seriously believe that people who risked their lives (and worse, their own families’ lives) to save ours (medics, nurses, cleaners, cashiers etc.) will not compare their impact on the crisis and the salaries that go with it, with the invisibility and uselessness of professional sports stars or other Fortune magazine business stars?
    • Economic: On what and how will we direct the trillions of € and $ that will be injected on supporting the Economy? We have a unique opportunity to recreate a sustainable and fairer economy. Will we, for example, buy airlines out in a panic (and we need them, myself the first one) or will we do this conditionally with an ecological view in mind?
    • Ideological: Who will have won “the Covid War”? That country who just took the unprecedented step of prohibiting its great scientists to share the results of their work until approved by government censorship? Or this other behaving like pirates by hijacking loads of face masks duly ordered and paid for by other nations. Who will be the Post Covid-19 new World’s Leaders? Will the citizens recover their privacy rights, duly delegated during the crisis to their political leaders?
    • Environmental: Will we display the same lethargy towards environment as we did before, or as we did towards Covid in its early days? Interesting to note that Climate-sceptic politicians were also Covid-sceptics! Or will we have the intelligence, competence, vision and courage to reinvent an environmentally and socially sustainable Economy?

I had measured expectations on those leaders who, like Henry Vth, in Shakespeare’s play, raised to the occasion, to become exceptional leaders when fate projected them into the Unknown. History will remember them!

This is the clip of the whole April 16th webinar, including interventions of Business Futurist Gerd Leonhard and Corporate Activist Céline Schillinger.

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