In late March, as Covid-19 killed hundreds of Americans each day, Donald Trump referred to himself as a “wartime president”. Within days, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “every one of us is enlisted” to “fight”, before he himself was hospitalised with the coronavirus.
When faced with adversity, male leaders have defaulted to militaristic vocabulary at least since defeated Romans were falling on their swords. When an army is invading, or a tyrant’s forces are running rampant, such martial language is appropriate.
A pandemic, however, respects none of the rules of war. There is no opposing general ordering troops to fire. No oncoming battalions following chain of command. Indeed, no enemies making any decisions at all.
Since responding to a virus is not achieved via combat, successfully suppressing it requires a wholly different mindset. Fortunately, several leaders around the world have reacted to the unconventional threat in unconventional style. And they are getting better results.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has been praised for bold policies communicated with empathy. On March 14, when the country had only six known cases, she announced that anyone entering New Zealand would need to self-isolate for two weeks. Her frequent briefings have prioritised the human dimension over economic costs. She even sought to reassure children that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were essential workers who would be looked after. So far, New Zealand has suffered only one death from Covid-19.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel moved quickly to promote an aggressive testing programme, boost the provision of ICU beds and ventilators, and to even quarantine herself at home after having contact on March 20 with a doctor who tested positive for the coronavirus. Not coincidentally, Germany’s mortality rate has been far lower than several of its neighbours, giving hope that some social and economic restrictions could be eased in mid-April.
Although her position is largely ceremonial, Zuzana Čaputová, the President of Slovakia, was one of the first world leaders to make important symbolic moves in public. For the new cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony on March 21, she led government leaders in wearing a mask, and showed how it can even be done with style. Her destigmatising gesture set an example for a country that has maintained one of Europe’s lowest coronavirus-related mortality rates.
These female heads of state and government are not the only success stories of political leadership in the age of Covid-19. Several men have also distinguished themselves with language and an approach suitable to the crisis. But the cases here highlight a form of leadership more often employed by women. It includes the following features.
- More collective than individual. On March 16, Čaputová told Slovaks, “We must help one another.” On television three days later, she continued to use the first person plural pronouns we, us and our, saying, “Regardless of our political preferences, we share the same expectations at the moment: that the government will guide us through the hard days, that it can prepare our hospitals for the increased number of sick people and that it will propose measures to help us manage the economy and social consequences.”
- More collaborative than competitive. When Merkel delivered an unprecedented television address on March 18, she said, “Since World War II, there has been no greater challenge to our country that depends so much on us acting together in solidarity.” She then reassured Germans that they needn’t feel rivalry in a search for essential food and supplies. “Hoarding, as though there are never going to be fresh supplies, is pointless and shows a complete lack of solidarity.”
- More coaching than commanding. In her March 23 press conference, Ardern asked New Zealanders to “be kind” to each other. She said, “People are afraid, and they are anxious. What we need from you, our community, is to support others. Check on your neighbours, start a phone tree with your street, plan how you’ll keep in touch with one another.” When a reporter asked whether she herself was scared, she replied, “No, I am not afraid, because we have a plan. And I just ask New Zealanders now to come with us on what will be an extraordinary period of time for everyone.”
These leaders have come across as self-confident, not arrogant. They have been assertive without showing a desire to dominate. They have taken the responsibilities of their position, without emphasising their authority. They have conveyed strength not despite their empathy, but because of it.
The coronavirus and Covid-19 have threatened the world in ways unseen since the Spanish flu of a century ago. Fortunately for the global citizenry, recent decades have started to bring new perspectives and life experiences to political leadership. Where there were zero elected female heads of state or government in 1918, today there are more than 20. This is still far from parity with their male counterparts.
As more women assume political leadership, perceptions of effective leadership start to change. Different challenges call for different approaches and varied skills. Not every problem to be solved is a battle to be waged. Not every tool to be employed is a weapon to be brandished. If good can come of today’s crisis, it can be a new appreciation of mind over muscle. It can be that a shaken world demands balanced leadership.