Leadership in the next phase of COVID-19
April 20, 2020
Around the world, plans are being launched to work with an app to fight COVID-19. It makes sense: the virus could be contained more easily, and then countries can be released from their lockdowns sooner. Experiences in China look promising. However, some people are enthusiastic, others are worried about their privacy.
Impressive leadership and change management will be necessary to convince people to adjust their behavior, conquer the virus and revive the economy.
Technical change vs. adaptive change
Change management has been applied in companies and organisations for years and business schools teach the subject widely. Ron Heifetz, senior lecturer in public leadership at Harvard, speaks about the difference between technical and adaptive change. When the problem and the solution are clear, and there is an authority that decides, it is a technical change. A good example is a bacterial infection. Through blood work the type of bacteria can be determined. The doctor can prescribe the right antibiotics. The infection disappears.
When dealing with adaptive change, the problem and the solution are less clear. Continuous cycles of experimenting and learning is necessary to find the right solution. With Covid-19 a lot of stakeholders with different views are involved: optimizing IC capacity, stimulating solidarity amongst people, protecting the weak in society, maintaining employment as much as possible. The list is endless, and the solution is not simple. How to control the virus, without letting the economy collapse? It is clear that fighting Covid-19 is a major adaptive challenge.
The next phase
In leadership it is important to communicate the direction clearly and to motivate and inspire people to follow a vision. It is interesting to watch leaders in different countries pursuing different approaches. Boris Johnson (UK) focused mostly on new rules with an emphasis on enforcement measures. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) displayed empathy with the effects on people’s lives and focused on meaning and purpose (saving lives), rather than on the measures. She also took time for questions.
The next phase of this crisis is to allow the economy to recover. The 1,5 or 2 meter society is speculated on, as well as the introduction of mandatory apps. There is less attention however on the feelings of people about the app, or how to motivate people to use it. Do politicians think that rational arguments will convince people?
It is important to understand the deeper motivations of change. Often, the problem is not the change itself, but what people are losing. Everyone wants to fight Covid-19 and revive the economy, but are they willing to make the sacrifices? There is no ‘one size fits all’. Whereas some people are persuaded by arguments, others first want to see positive results yet others wait to see what their family and friends decide.
What adaptive leadership is needed to get the desired change in behavior?
- Experts and stakeholders need to be brought together to get to a common policy and plan. Not only the medical world can decide, but also financial experts, economists, experts in people’s behavior and many others need to jointly strategize. These groups need be empowered by the government to experiment, reflect, learn and adjust their course. Quick compromises are needed to serve the overarching goals.
- Empathy is important in communication, understanding the impact on society and motivating people by giving purpose and meaning to the new measures. People need to be inspired to cooperate Taking them figuratively by the hand and guiding them through the process, communicating frequently and transparently. Only doing this will we get a ‘learning government and society’ that fights COVID-19 jointly and with conviction