COVID-19: Why strong leaders who communicate effectively will save lives

Peter Remon
6 min readApr 24, 2020

‘There is a pattern emerging’, said Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, the UK’s political opposition to the government, on Wednesday. The UK has been ‘slow into lockdown, slow on testing and slow on providing personal protective equipment’.

Members of the public queue for a bus whilst wearing protective face masks

These are all strong reasons as to why the UK is currently hurtling towards being one of the worst affected countries by COVID-19, and likely will experience the highest death rate in the whole of Europe. As it stands, the UK figure is currently at just over 18,000 deaths (reported on 23rd April), yet a damning report from the Financial Times, using ONS (Office for National Statistics) data, released earlier this week predicts that the UK’s death rate is actually a much higher rate — around 41,000 deaths.

Comparing the UK death rate to countries like Germany, and a number of other Westernised counterparts, where testing has been on mass, a lockdown was implemented urgently and early, and healthcare supply, including PPE, was stable and secure — it’s easy to see where the failings of the UK have been. However, there is one overlooked factor that has hugely impacted on this crisis: leadership.

President of the United States, Donald Trump, at a political rally

The UK and the US appear set to be the worst hit countries during this pandemic. Though various failings have been similar across both countries, both have a very clear problem with leadership, and the way in which their leaders communicate. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, for example has spent numerous press conferences attacking the press, instead of answering to them, and even used a news conference to run what appeared eerily similar to a political campaign video, as opposed to reassuring and informing the public. Whilst the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, often diverted hard-hitting questions to others, did not offer clear and concise guidelines to the public, and preached for social distancing and self-isolation, just before saying he was going to try and visit his mother for mother’s day.

Effectiveness as a leader is based on a number of factors, but central to this is the ability to communicate well, states Dr. Karin King, a Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) Department of Management, “Without skilful communications, a leader may be able to demonstrate essential management skills, but will inevitably be constrained…communicating effectively will underpin all other aspects of good leadership practice”.

And in a time of crisis, the effectiveness and frequency of leader’s communication becomes even more important. Karlien Vanderheyden, professor of leadership at Vlerick Business School says, “More communication is needed in a time of crisis, and clear and enough communication has an impact. People experience anxiety and uncertainty with an overload of information, the more simple and short your language is, the more convincing it is”.

Though communicating with the public is vital in times of crisis, it’s not just about informing the public, says Jan Hagen, an Associate Professor of Management Practice at ESMT Berlin. “Leaders shouldn’t only see it as a way of giving direction and orders but rather view communication as a means for gathering information. One aspect of leader’s communications that is often overlooked is asking questions. Doing this in the current COVID-19 crisis may seem evident with regard to receiving advice from medical experts, but asking questions also provides a means for getting new ideas or different viewpoints — that otherwise would not reach you as a leader.”

Cleaners spray the floor with disinfectant

With leadership experts all in agreement that effective communication is so key to managing a crisis, where is it that many leaders are going wrong? And what can they do to ensure their communication is as effective as possible, in order to ensure the public follow guidelines and, inevitably in doing so, save lives?

“Use simple language, and rules of three”, says Professor Vanderheyden, “Governor Cuomo from New York State knows how to communicate in a concise way. In mid-March he tweeted the following message: “Stay Home. Stop the Spread. Save Lives.” This short message was much more convincing than if he would have tried to persuade New Yorkers by explaining the whole situation and all possible consequences”. This rule of three works as “people can only remember a few items in their short-term memory. If you overload them with information, they forget what to do”, says Professor Vanderheyden.

The clarity of a message and the consistency of a leader’s presence is also incredibly important in effective communications, according to Dr. King. This is something that has been a miss in the UK with press conference duties passed around to various spokespeople from the government, and with Boris Johnson hospitalised, there has been lack of a clear, defined leader.

“In uncertainty, conciseness is important.” says Dr. King, “Communications which deliver no further insight or appear vague will undermine the clarity of well-defined messages and risk confusion. Whilst leader’s presence and accessibility, is an important signal which communicates to others the stability and reliability of the leadership”.

But which leaders have shown effective skills in guiding their countries through this pandemic, using clear and concise communication, and strong leadership to reassure and inform the public?

The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, delivering a speech

“Though it is likely too early to tell, the leaders of the three countries that fared relatively well so far — Taiwan, South Korea and Germany”, says Professor Hagen. Germany’s approach to how it has handled the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely praised in both medical terms, but also in leadership terms too, and something that Dr. King also echoes, saying “the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, appears to be visibly consistent, coherent and concise in her communications, invariably drawing on evidence-based information and insight. Angela Merkel is able to underpin her leadership with effective communications”.

Whilst for Professor Vanderheyden, Governor Cuomo has been is a leader who has effectively communicated with the public on this pandemic. “He (Governor Cuomo), has had clear communication, decisiveness, has been open about the risks, used personal stories about his mother and daughters, conducted everyday conferences with facts and numbers, and he explains the why of decisions.” Whilst she says some leaders have “lacked communication, let the medical experts always take the lead, and sometimes had ambiguous communications”.

It remains to be seen how effectively countries and their leaders have dealt with this COVID-19 pandemic. But for now, it appears that those who have acted quickly on medical grounds, whether that be mass testing, implementing lockdowns and social distancing early, or those with already well-funded and well-run healthcare systems, are those who will have been most successful in stifling the virus and saving lives.

But, let us not forget the impact that having a strong leader, who can clearly and concisely communicate government’s strategy to the public, will have had on the lives of their citizens. An effective leader in a crisis, Professor Hagen says, should be “open and transparent in their communication from the start, listen to expert advice and not ridicule or silence it, be coherent and decisive in their implementation of policy decisions, and willing to adjust decisions when necessary”. It appears leaders who have acted in this way may have just save thousands of their citizen’s lives.

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