Leadership Styles, Political Empathy and a Pandemic

True democratic leaders display a radiance of style – John Keane.

A doctor gives a perscription to a patient in an outlying Havana community. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Arechavaleta*

HAVANA TIMES – A lot has been written recently about the relative efficacy of government responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The global dimension of this virus and its disturbing omnipresence has threatened every country equally, regardless of their different forms of political government, institutional structure, public health infrastructures and economy.

Shortcomings in this response from well-established democracies hasn’t gone unnoticed. Neither has the relative success certain authoritarian regimes have had at containing its spread.

Taking a look at different countries’ public health policies in response to COVID-19 and their strategies to mitigate (tracking and tracing the virus) or suppress the virus (compulsory self-isolation), the political leadership style and cognitive distortions that condition these, seem to be decisive.

Without playing down the efficient role of a public health infrastructure, which reflects steady practices and the professional values of self-correction like every institution should, including lessons learned and technological advances, as well as an ability to adapt and be flexible with the new situation so as to ensure minimal damage.

However, responses to the pandemic and their results seem to be explained by leadership style and a leader’s empathy skills in times of a global crisis.

From a cognitive distortion perspective, we could classify these two leadership styles as the following: Consensual and Populist. Under a Consensual Leadership, cognitive distortion tends to be low or zero, given its foundation for deliberative decision-making and the cooperative nature of strategic plans, which recognize global, regional and national limitations in dealing with the crisis, and the importance of support strategies based on scientific and technological expertise, as well as different forecasts and scenarios.

This response to the crisis tends to be proactive, underlining prevention strategies and selective intervention with a the long-term vision, minimizing negative effects on the national economy and finances. Public interest tends to take prevalence above the private sector or specific interest groups.

Relevant examples of this kind of leadership and its successful response to the pandemic include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, Erna Solberg in Norway, Sanna Marin in Finland and Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore also had this kind of leadership. 

On the other hand, Populist Leadership is defined by high cognitive distortion of its decision-making, given the personality centered regime and dramatic nature of its government, with a dynamic of little cooperation, which even comes to a head with other institutions within the same government, and an ultraconservative nationalist perspective.

Defying scientific and technologic expertise, and a loyalty for utopian forecasts and single outcome, allow it to take a reactive response with an emphasis on wrong and zig-zagging short-term strategies, which are mainly focused on supression (compulsory self-isolation) being a last resort. 

Private, corporate or specific groups’ interests tend to come into the picture. We have irrefutable displays of this kind of leadership and its disastrous results from Donald Trump (US), Boris Johnson (UK), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Mexico), Nayib Bukele (El Salvador), and Viktor Orban (Hungary).

In spite of having modest economic resources and infrastructure, a Consensual Leadership tends to maximize these for public needs, applying them in a proactive way with flexible mitigation and suppression strategies that are based on early scientific assessments about the virus’ life cycles. Their ability to use I.T. technology to generate empathic information can be an advantage that makes these successful and budding leaderships really stand apart.

Young New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s style of leadership has made headlines, finding Facebook Live to be a platform she could use to empathically interact with her fellow citizens, transmitting clear and consistent messages in an instructive and relaxed style from the informal setting of her quarantine at home. People feel like “she isn’t preaching; she is with them”, which is why New Zealand citizens have such a high level of trust in the decisions the government has taken to tackle the pandemic (88%), with the highest approval rating for a leader in the last century (56.5%).

Trump and Bolsonaro’s style has been a clear sign of extreme denial of scientific expertise, which has led to a stand-off between experts and institutions. Ludicrous epidemiological verdicts about the virus and its alleged cures have led to great uncertainty and polarization, limiting the latent risk perception a large part of society has.

Economic calculations seem to come before the public health crisis in these kinds of leadership. Far from Jacinta Arderns assertive and empathetic communication, presidents Trump, Bolsonaro and Lopez Obrador challenge the pillars of containing the virus: social distancing and wearing a mask, in every daily briefing.

Leaders’ communication style – assertive or disruptive – is a key component of public health strategy. In the face of so much uncertainty, citizen’s trust in their leader’s civic guidance is a fundamental incentive to engage social capital, that’s to say, the associative, organizational and collective mobilization efforts for society’s best interests.

No public health strategy can contain the pandemic on its own without civil society standing by it. This is where empathy, which is understood as the human dimension of political authority, can be decisive.

For as John Keane so rightfully admits, “Above all, true democratic leaders humbly acknowledge their deep dependence upon the people that they lead. They don’t try to drag citizens by their noses. They lead people by persuading them to look up to their leaders.”
*A Cuban sociologist and academic who lives in Mexico City. 

One thought on “Leadership Styles, Political Empathy and a Pandemic

  • Excellent analysis.

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