27 September 2023

Masterclass: What women have taught us about leadership in a crisis

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Stephanie Denning* says the current pandemic has highlighted the need for the type of leadership offered by women.

In recent weeks, a string of articles has popped up pointing to the interesting correlation between the countries with greatest success in combatting the coronavirus crisis also being run by women.

A headline in The Washington Post read: “Female World Leaders Hailed As Voices of Reason Amid the Coronavirus Chaos.”

It’s true if we look at the countries that have fared the best during this pandemic, the countries are helmed by women.

And the leaders who have demonstrated themselves to be the most decisive — and calm — have also been women.

New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has been at the forefront of taking action to suffocate the virus.

In New Zealand, Ardern took the bold stance of not only implementing a strategy of suppression but one of total elimination of the coronavirus.

Ardern was very quick to close borders and was one of the fastest leaders to move the country from first case to lockdown.

The daily growth rate of the virus is estimated to be less than 1 per cent.

Germany, led by Angela Merkel, was also quick to institute a response and one of the first countries in Europe to fast-track testing.

COVID-19 antibody testing is now widespread in Germany, the first of its kind in Europe, estimated to run 120,000 tests per day.

(The US by comparison has yet to sort out how to test effectively and at scale.)

Taiwan, led by President, Tsai Ing-wen, and with an epidemiologist as her Vice President, Chen Chien-Jen at her side, has been one of the rare countries to successfully stop the spread of coronavirus in its tracks without the mass disruptions to daily life at the level seen in most other countries.

The Government was quick to implement travel restrictions and to institute health checks.

The country, with a population of around 23 million, has experienced a remarkably low rate of cases with just 500 and fewer than 10 deaths.

Denmark, led by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (pictured), was one of the first countries in Europe to shut its borders and go into lockdown.

Frederiksen also put into effect the necessary economic policies to sustain the country’s economy during the crisis.

Quick actions have proved fruitful as the country has started to loosen certain lockdown restrictions, starting with schools and small businesses like shops and hairdressers.

Big corporations in the country have started to assess how to bring employees back to work.

A common theme runs through these examples.

Mounting a successful defence against a crisis of this magnitude takes more than a single person.

Effectively developing a strategic response depends on a leader who is both willing to listen to public health experts and scientists and willing to take decisive action as needed.

The approach is obvious in theory but so hard to do in practice.

And these leaders have this unique cross-section of skills in common.

The leaders were willing to take counsel from experts and didn’t shy away from enacting decisive actions.

A crisis of this magnitude calls for a leader who can look beyond themselves, who feels compelled to act not only for their own people and country but for society as a whole.

(Now would be a good to time to ask why we even elect leaders who don’t have this sense of mission in the first place?)

Leaders like Ardern and Frederiksen have shown that strength in a time of crisis can come from acknowledging that you are not the expert in this arena and then listening to those who are.

And then not being afraid to act on the evidence even if you can’t be sure whether it is the right course of action.

It takes a unique style of confidence to lead in this manner, a style of leadership that is at once vulnerable and assertive, both empathetic and tough.

Although this style of leadership is practised less frequently than the all-knowing, invulnerable leader we too often see, this style of leadership is not unique to women.

And maybe this pandemic has highlighted not only that there is room for this type of leadership, but that this is the type of leadership we need more than ever in the world today.

* Stephanie Denning is a Forbes contributor. She tweets at @stephdenning.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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