Humanity is witnessing an unprecedented crisis. Citizens all over the world are hoping and praying for a best-case scenario where the devastation caused by the coronavirus to human lives and the economy can be limited. Leaders are being confronted with a crisis that they probably never expected in their lifetime. And with the growing demand for strict quarantines and national lockdowns, which entail severe restrictions on the freedom of movement and assembly of citizens, democracies around the world are being tested. Although it is too early to predict the impact of various measures to combat the further spread of the virus, one thing appears clear. The need of the hour is informed, inclusive, committed, compassionate and visionary leadership.
As leaders navigate these challenging times and expect citizens to follow orders and undertake major behavioural changes such as social distancing, trust in government is crucial. In Scandinavia, we are generally trustful of our leaders and largely believe that they have our best interests at heart. Thus, even though we may disagree with the purpose of certain drastic measures, we are generally convinced that our leaders – in times of crises – will do the right thing in the societal interest. In societies characterised by distrust and where the government is not viewed to be credible, leaders find it difficult to enforce decisions during normal times. And during crises, this challenge is further amplified.
In assessing the risks involved and preparing for various scenarios, leaders must solicit all available information. This requires assembling a competent team of scientists, bureaucrats and politicians that understands the kinds of resources currently available and how such resources and personnel can be redirected to key sectors and regions. Decisions must be based on credible information, which in turn requires listening to experts, including critics, and then making an informed decision after weighing all possible alternatives.
Once a decision is taken, it must be communicated effectively. Of particularly importance is to strive for clarity and simplicity without leaving any doubt about the government’s resolve to enforce difficult decisions, which may include sanctions, hefty fines and even jail for violators. Norway has recently fined an individual $2000 for attending a social event despite being diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Leaders and their teams must also remain motivated to follow through on tough decisions even when immediate results are not visible. A lockdown lasting several months, that will cause major societal and economic upheavals, is a case in point. Making difficult choices requires faith in the decision-making process and in the members of the leadership group. Initial mistakes must be rectified immediately, without fear of potential embarrassment. There will always be room to tinker with details, but maintaining overall policy direction is key.