When the magnitude of the corona epidemic became pretty clear in March of this year, I took my children (19 and 17) aside and pointed out to them that they would be witnessing a major social experiment over the coming weeks and months. All they had to do was sit back, enjoy the safety of their parental home, and observe.
It felt like an experiment to me at the time. We had no idea the dimensions that COVID-19 could take on, which measures would effectively help, and how long it would all last. Maximum uncertainty also referred to as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
Learned a lot
In the intervening period, governments, politicians, virologists, epidemiologists, and other experts and non-experts have learned a lot. We know more about the virus, albeit not everything. We know which measures are effective and which events and causes lead to rising infection rates. Actually, after eight months we ought to know how we, as a society, should deal with COVID-19 and which measures are effective. It shouldn’t be difficult for governments to make good decisions right now. And get the approval of broad swathes of the public.
The opposite is true. Acceptance by the general public of some aspects of the current measures aimed at curbing the second wave is limited. Credibility in the government, politicians, and experts is shaken. Even within the political arena, there is opposition from parliamentarians to special powers for the government and the non-involvement of parliament in the decision-making process. Whereas in March and April, given the dynamics of events, this was seen as the appropriate way to act – the need to respond quickly – after eight months, the question arises as to why this urgency still persists and what has happened in the meantime.
Authority and leadership
My intention here is not to offer an answer to the complexity of the overall situation. Within the scope of my research for my doctoral thesis, I shall address the question of how power, authority, and leadership behavior influence the motivation and creativity of employees. Experiments have shown that dominance-focused managers tend to separate competent and high-performing employees from each other. Those who might become dangerous to the manager’s own position of power and influence. This is usually done by assigning them projects that have fewer responsibilities, not involving them in decision-making processes, or even physically isolating them. Many politicians are dominant because of their power, or powerful because of their dominance. One way or another.
Besides dominance, prestige or popularity is another motive for taking on influential leadership positions. Prestige-oriented managers tend to withhold any information from their employees that could damage their reputation and popularity.
Politicians and executives who are both dominant and popularity-oriented pose a particular risk. If their popularity (in the case of politicians: re-election) is threatened and at the same time colleagues and experts question their competence, they will tend to deny these experts any possibility of having any influence. They then typically consolidate their own position of power and popularity through ostensibly decisive action.
Significantly less acceptance
This is exactly what we have been able to observe over the past few months. Governments adopted special powers and tried to safeguard their popularity by governing with a strong hand. At the same time, they suppressed other expert opinions about COVID-19. Alternative opinions were neither sought nor discussed. The path chosen was presumed to ”lack any other alternative.” And different points of view and strategies were not even considered.
Consequently, the measures announced for the second wave are not as widely accepted by the general public. Moreover, the credibility of the policies has suffered enormous damage. Therefore, the only way that political leadership can retain its influence in these difficult times is by showing that it has some clout.
This observation also applies to companies. Hubris, i.e. an extreme overestimation of one’s own capacities and skills, is one of the main reasons why companies fail. This applies to start-ups as well as to mature companies. Founders and CEOs often have a majority stake. They also need that in order to establish a company in a given market or to be able to defend it against competitors at a later stage.
Entrepreneurs who are successful in the medium and long term constantly question and challenge their own perspective. They do this to avoid the risk of overestimating their own capabilities and thus make the wrong decisions. The same applies to executives, for whom popularity is often a key motive. They run the risk of lying to themselves and their employees with incomplete or inaccurate information. This prevents them from making important and correct decisions for the success and survival of companies. Popularity is not a bad thing in itself and plenty of successful companies have very popular bosses. But these bosses also ensure that their own take on things is backed up by competent and complementary people in their environment. This makes sure that different perspectives and opinions are incorporated into strategic and crucial operational decision-making processes.
Covid-19 challenges us as individuals, leaders, and politicians. It poses a threat to our habits and cherished routines. It forces us to see the world in a new light and explore new paths. Consequently, it is a task that can only be successfully tackled as a team and by embracing a variety of perspectives. This holds true for businesses as well as politics.
In a weekly column, written alternately by Wendy van Ierschot, Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, and Hans Helsloot, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.