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Leadership in a COVID-19 environment and beyond

Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE year 2020 has no doubt been a challenging one as a result of our reaction to COVID-19.

One consequence has been the revelation of the underbelly of many societies, exposing the inequalities that exist and also how ill-prepared many are for a crisis. Many slipped easily from being able to make car and mortgage payments to not being able to put food on the table. Many also finally understood how much they have neglected their health, and we have also seen the inequalities emerge in the capacity of children to learn.

This will no doubt cause a reset of society and create a further divide between income levels, resulting in smaller middle classes; many will be unprepared for retirement.

No doubt many countries will see governments playing more of a welfare role than they did before, as the State is going to become more important. With many small and medium-size businesses not existing anymore it means Government must step in to play a greater role in economies.

Recently, someone posted on Facebook an article that shows the stark inequalities around the world as the pandemic has made those with capital wealthier and the masses poorer – in my view, the rich benefiting not just because they were more prepared financially but because they looked at the pandemic from a “half full” rather than “half empty” approach. So while many were saying we need to stay home and lock down the economy, they asked “what are the opportunities that can be exploited?”. Ironically, this approach provided them with not only a more secure future but also made them better protected against the pandemic, because increased wealth gave provided that protection.

One person questioned the growing inequality of societies and why are our leaders are not able to do more to change this equation, as they are supposed to be the servants of the people.

As we go into 2021 and beyond, one of the things that will be critical to building back economies, and equity in societies, will no doubt be strong leadership.

I agree that leaders are supposed to be servants.

However, with no controls leaders will always exploit the people, unless they are special. Even some of the people who criticise leaders will do the same thing if they are in the position because we many times forget that the fundamental concept of economic behaviour is that man is inherently selfish, which is why the capitalist model has been the most successful and all other economic models have failed. Feudalism, slavery, socilaism and communism have all come and gone in shorter periods than capitalism and the complementary democracy as a political system.

This is why the United States has been the longest-reigning super power as they have been the best at applying both capitalism and democracy as economic and political models, respectively. I came to understand this long ago thanks to my university lecturers in economics and politics, Dr Trevor Munroe and Mark Figueroa whose two classes prepared my thinking about life, in addition to sociology with Don Robotham – and at the time I used to wonder about their relevance to accounting.

Selfishness is inherent in all of us and is the impetus for us to progress individually and as a society. Selfishness is fueled by the instinct to survive and this is why, in my view, those who have gone through hard times in their life, or those in athletics, tend to many times possess a drive to push further than most (this is why I find the lacklustre approach to restart sporting activities sad).

Many people who say they want others to stay home until COVID-19 passes do so more out of self-interest. They have savings or a steady income or actually earn more from the pandemic. But don't blame them, because man inherently is not born with the capacity to empathise (economics and politics at UWI). Only a select few have that ability, and end up being great leaders. For example, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or some corporate leaders. That is why, despite his economic failings, Manley is revered to this day. They all had the ability to empathise and feel the pain of others and so were able to lead and inspire – something that is missing in many leaders today, maybe because of the individualism that societies have taught for decades.

In order to compensate for this selfish motive we put systems and institutions in place to check on power, as we are seeing in the US, which is why, despite this recent four-year glitch, it is still the greatest country on earth. Again I recommend the book Why Nations Fail for reading.

If you look at all societies that work well, including the Scandinavian model, it is because such a leader came to power and made the changes in the face of opposition. For example, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore; and as the book Good to Great tells us, many of the exemplary leaders who made significant progress were not in the spotlight, and I will guess that in many companies and countries that we have seen do well without much fanfare you will find that type of unsung leader also.

Have we in Jamaica seen that leader as yet? My answer to that is no, even with the blind political rhetoric of many. No doubt some of our leaders have, or do, possess that quality. But just like Neo in the The Matrix, there is that one flaw that has made them not realise their potential.

Michael Manley certainly had it and could have been “The One”, but you can't build societies by isolating capital.

Edward Seaga also had it but his problem was that he didn't develop the people around him enough and so received opposition, as the most important characteristic a leader must have is to be a builder of people. Portia Simpson Miller certainly had it but I think the legacy of her constituency and the political realities it brought prevented it.

Bruce Golding also had that charisma, intellect, and purpose to make that change, and people would have followed – but I thought his flaw was that he was not decisive enough.

Today, Andrew Holness certainly has it. Will he be able to realise that potential? I think he can but his Achilles heel will be his party politics holding him back and the challenge in ensuring that he has the right team around him to support his vision for the country. He has what in The Matrix is termed “The Gift”, and certainly has time on his side. His success will be determined by his team around him, and if he will have silent strong supporters as Martin Luther King did or those that will bring him down like what happened to Ceasar.

In the Opposition I think there are two people who have The Gift. First is Damion Crawford, who I think has not realised it because he has managed to stay out of the leadership and you can't make change without being a leader, whether elected or selected. And one more, I won't say who it is now, who has the charisma and is part of leadership.

In effect, I agreed with the person that political leadership, capitalism and democracy are not perfect but they are the best we have. Progress and equity in society, however, ultimately rely on strong and empathetic leaders who have The Gift to lead us to that “promised land”, especially in a post-pandemic era – whether at a country, company, or family level.

Dennis Chung is the author of Charting Jamaica's Economic and Social Development and Achieving Life's Equilibrium. His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com. Email: drachung@gmail.com

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