Leaders in crisis

A crisis is an opportunity. An opportunity to reveal something, to gain insight. People forced to deal with unexpected situations will likely reveal a lot about themselves, about the way they see life and about their basic way of functioning. The current coronavirus outbreak offered me a good opportunity to have a look at our world and I just wanted to share some of my views.

First, a disclosure: I have cut myself from the traditional information sources and the social media because there is a huge temptation to distort reality. Some people shift their perceptions because they are afraid or because they hold particular beliefs. Others show a degree of perversion and generate fake news either because they are paid to do so or because they are psychotic or intoxicated by induced beliefs. In times like these, I use raw information (as much as possible), so I follow the updates from Reuters. News agencies tend to just convey (communicate) information without interpreting (manipulating) it. Then, Reuters tends to be in the middle; not too much to the left and also not too much to the right. Of course, it is not perfect, but nothing in this world is. By doing this, I can judge information without being emotional and as less influenced as possible.

One of the things that surprised me was the reaction of the people (the crowd) in the context of the pandemic. There are mature populations like the Scandinavian and the German worlds, where people were told that they should do this and that so as to prevent the spread of the virus, and then they were left to take care of themselves. People got themselves informed, took a rational attitude facing the disease, assumed with dignity that some of them will die, and then moved on. Then there are immature populations who didn’t listen to what they were told, tried to cheat, broke the rules and reacted with either fear or mistrust of the authorities. And then there are the States, where that American Dream appeared voided of substance; a violent population, living from one month to another without a back-up plan or money, crying for jobs despite the risk of the disease, without any social safety net and without universal health insurance. Definitely, America appeared to me for the first time in my life as a place worth visiting but under no circumstance worth living in. Another myth scattered in my mind.

What I learned from the reaction of different crowds? I learned that in stressful situations you tend to be on your own. No government is going to help you right away, so you need to be prepared, to take things in your hands and have some sort of back-up. It’s not about being paranoid but it’s also not about living on loans. It is wise to have your own thing, your own place (home), and some extra money. Borrowing money from the future, mindless consumption, taking credits to buy things you don’t really need while not investing anything in yourself or your life… that is stupid. And in crisis times like these, having some cash and some property puts you in a (relatively) better position. Watching the news from the US, seeing those people protesting so that the economy can open sooner while disregarding the health risks, is a very strong image. I mean, people prefer to risk dieing of the virus rather than dieing from hunger caused by joblessness. It seems to be a rational approach but then I ask why they weren’t rational before the crisis, when they decided to live risky lives? Okay, maybe some of them didn’t really have the choice to do otherwise, but this social model of the American society seems to be quite flawed; people should not have to choose which way of dieing is better – infection or hunger. And I guess that the responsibility of changing things lies on their shoulders; it is in their power to choose to have a different political attitude since now the faults in their system have been clearly exposed for everyone in the world to see.

Then, another thing I want to highlight is the weakness of the world’s leaders. I believe that the leaders chosen by a certain population are accurate mirrors of that population. Why? Because leaders identify with the populations that are electing them. However, we mostly have political leaders, not leaders (in their own right). Politics is about illusion and delusion, is about the image a candidate advertises to its electorate. So people practically elect images, not persons. Well-designed images but still… images. In the past, starting from prehistoric times, the leaders were the strongest individuals (physical strength, warriors). Then, the leader’s profile changed, and strength was replaced by the ability to manipulate, by intelligence, by the skill to negotiate treaties and deals. It was still a leadership based on strategic or social aptitudes. But then the profile changed again and nowadays a good leader is someone skilled at playing with one’s imagination, skilled at projecting images and stimulating hope (by promising stuff). However, life happens in the real world, in a world where measures need to be taken. The coronavirus doesn’t care about images; it requires action and smart decisions from the current leaders. It requires either brute force or intelligent planning but it definitely doesn’t require (only) speeches and promises. The essential problem the world has now is that it doesn’t have leaders because their profile has changed to such a degree that it has lost the contact with the ground or the realities of what leadership means.

From a certain perspective, you can’t ask a lot from today’s leaders. They are just images which have been voted. They are powerless. They lack ideas. And they do what they know best. And this differs from leader to leader and from nation to nation.

Some leaders were elected for pragmatic and selfish reasons, on promises of jobs and economic benefits without too much effort from the voters and without too much concern for the consequences on environment. The immediate need proved to be more important than the perspective, the future. I guess you can recognize the US. So the chosen leader now tends to solve a problem in the present with measures for the present, not thinking about the future, trying to work around an immediate solution. So you open the economy, you restart everything, and in a couple of months you’ll have millions infected and thousands of deaths. The solution? Deflect attention and blame others. It is always someone else’s fault – this seems to be the way out of any problem – be it the WHO, China or someone else. And in case of emergency, a new war with anyone who happens to be a suitable candidate can restart the economy. As history shows, the war is always a good solution for economic recovery, especially if that war is far away, on a different continent.

Other leaders are authoritarians. They belong to undemocratic nations. They rule by force or corruption. Or both. They are chosen by people who find it hard to be responsible for their own destiny, so they choose someone who can do that for them and tell them what to do. Africa or East Europe or some parts of Asia are good examples. These leaders usually come to power with the help of the army or through bribery. But in the current crisis, the same means by which they came to power can’t be used. The coronavirus can’t be fought with common weapons. It’s an invisible enemy. You can’t assassinate it. You can’t menace it. You can’t fight a war against it. Or… you can’t negotiate with it. You can’t bribe it. The virus can’t be corrupted; you can’t give money to him or a good position in your government. The virus won’t deal with you and it’s not becoming emotional despite any argument or reason you may throw at it. So this type of leader is no match for the coronavirus. By consequence, these leaders will turn to the populations they rule; it is them who are going to suffer the consequences. So, they will use brute force, incompetence and lying. Brute force often means a reduction of the civil rights, such as the right of freedom of movement (by contrast, remember Sweden, which never took away this right). Incompetence often means ways of uselessly intimidating the population (such as using the army or the police on the streets) or fining people for not respecting inefficient or absurd regulations. Finally, hiding the truth in official declarations and deliberately using disinformation and distortion are highly efficient and wide-spread ways to manage this type of crisis. In a way, it is normal; the leaders came to power using exactly the same ways. Why would someone expect them to do things differently now?

A third type of leader is the inefficient bureaucrat. Some advanced nations do have plenty of them. They were elected by compromise, through negotiations between parties, using good references and influential peers. They weren’t even elected as well-marketed images. If the first type of leader is skilled at manipulating the imagination of the voters and the second type is skilled at menacing, bribing or telling lies, this third type is not accountable to anyone except for the elite who decided to name him/her in the position of power. Not having a lot of legitimacy, this leader is weak by definition. A good example is the European Union, which lost authority during this crisis and was slow to react, focusing on papers and regulations (bureaucracy) while the national states took their fate in their hands, occasionally stealing (requisitioning) medical equipment from one another (which is a disturbing image in itself). The main issue here is with authority; it is not a speech or a piece of paper that will give you authority; leadership is a direct and straightforward connection with the people you lead and whom you represent (and to which you are accountable, see the UK political system of constituencies for instance). Hiding behind symbols, words and smiles is not going to help you.

Now, you can’t really blame politicians for being bad leaders. They are elected by the populations they represent. And those populations are responsible for the leaders they choose. Who forced the Americans to elect such a president? Nobody. Who forces people to elect corrupted politicians in other parts of the world? Nobody. Who forces the Europeans to tolerate bureaucrats in Brussels? Nobody. Some need jobs, others need to keep their profits high or their positions in the state apparatus, and finally, others simply don’t care, but the reality is that people choose their leaders so as to serve them. And, with the occasion of the coronavirus outbreak, some leaders obviously can’t keep up.

The coronavirus pandemic is – as I said at the beginning – an opportunity. For people who are able to think, insight has been acquired. Deep reflection is currently undergoing. I don’t think that much change is going to happen in countries where the second type of leadership is prevalent. People there are not mature enough, they still expect from their leaders to assume the responsibility that should be theirs in the first place. As long as you choose to make your leader responsible and not take that responsibility yourself when you see that your leader is failing, you cannot change anything. Also, in places like the States, where people are blinded by the immediate moment, no change is likely to happen. But in some countries in Europe, and perhaps in Asia or Australia/New Zealand, I hope that there is going to be a shift towards leaders with political skills and away from politicians with little or no leadership skills. It is already obvious that choosing marketed images or bureaucrats as leaders is costing too many lives. And it is obvious that letting an elite to make choices that are not beneficial for the masses is no longer reasonable.

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