The current scenario offers us an important lesson about the idea of strong leadership and the contradictory meanings of the phrase, ‘a strong leader’. As we have seen different responses to the COVID-19 challenge across the world, we’ve begun to sort political leaders into different piles, into trays labelled ‘effective’, ‘adequate’, ‘confused but well-meaning’, ‘incompetent’ and ‘criminally dangerous self-serving buffoons’.
Traits on display
Memes point out that countries led by women have dealt much better with the crisis than states run by men who need to show their machismo more than they need to ensure the safety of their citizens. There have been detailed analyses of how geography, size of population, economy, culture and other factors have all contributed towards worsening or alleviating the damage from the pandemic.
For instance, to randomly take three political units ruled by elected women, it’s a no-brainer to see that containing the virus in Iceland (population 3.64 lakh, area 103,000 sq. km) is a very different proposition from doing so in Germany (roughly 80 million people in 360,000 sq. km) or West Bengal (population roughly 98 million, area 89,000 sq. km).
However, whether the leader is male or female, the political unit big or small, located near a polar ice-cap or near the Equator, certain positive attributes and sometimes negative, even terrifying, traits of leaders have quickly risen to the surface over the last three months.
On the positive side, the first crucial thing is that leaders be absolutely honest in what they say to their people. Often the initial message has been stark: this is a grave crisis; we have a good health system (or a not so great one) but it is not designed to handle something like this; this is what we the government are doing about it; this is what you, the people, will need to do.
The second thing is that the truthful message has been followed by substantial action, with separate wards and systems for testing and quarantine organised; necessary equipment and clothing sourced; alternative plans based on rationality and medical logic kept ready, and so on.
Where’s the team?
The third thing we’ve seen, wherever the battle has been effectively waged, is that those leaders have all left their politics, religious beliefs and irrationalities at home. The fourth thing is that it is never just one person leading the fight but a team ; there may be one Prime Minister or Chancellor who leads, but the other ministers with their specific responsibilities are also crucial; and all the politicians readily accept that they need to defer substantially to doctors and epidemiologists about what exactly needs to be done.
The test of genuine leadership is exactly this — that a leader is not insecure about ‘looking bad’ or panicky about losing power; and will therefore take decisions without worrying about the ‘optics’, without adding the masala of spectacle to what are often unspectacular choices that can only have incremental effects. Wherever we’ve seen the COVID-19 crisis brought under some kind of control, these four things have been evident.
Examples of the opposite kind of ‘leadership’ have been far more common over these last few weeks. One telltale sign of a supposed strongman who is actually weak and hollow is that a lot of the decisions are about the person themselves rather than what the country, State or city needs. In order to protect themselves these leaders will lie — constantly — to the public that has elected them. Their stories will change, they will do 180 degree turns on previously held positions, they will reach for distractions, find groups or countries to blame, claim undue credit and try and slide the responsibility for the crisis and their own ineffective or foolish responses on to others.
In their speeches they will put the onus of action on you, the ordinary citizen, while never saying what exactly it is that they themselves will deliver. As they continue to talk and posture, covering up their own inaction and incompetence, the suffering spreads in waves, engulfing more and more people, with the poor and under-privileged catching the brunt of it.
Previously this kind of fake, play-acting leadership managed to trick a lot of people. The problem with this nasty COVID-19 virus is that it doesn’t fall for demagoguery, for the tamasha politics of thali-banging or the carpet-bombing by rose petals; the pandemic is not affected in the least by servile TV channels or the troll army riding their Twitter buttons. The virus will only be brought under control by honesty, relentless hard work, and by science. In the meantime, it will gnaw through and hollow out many a so-called ‘strong leader’, adding the husk of their delusions to the bin marked ‘Hazardous Waste’.
Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.