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What the COVID 19 crisis teaches us about effective leadership in the modern world

An analysis of countries across the world dealing with the corona crisis reveals a clear finding – Those with populist leaders are far less likely to successfully meet the challenge, compared to those with more modest leaders.

The COVID 19 crisis allows us to inspect up close, an age-old phenomenon, which has always been difficult to diagnose – The human inability to understand and rapidly predict changing trends in the modern world.

A unique feature of the corona virus, in comparison to other viruses, is our inability to understand its behavior. For a long time, this type of uncertainty has been evident elsewhere too. It stems from the fact that change in the world is becoming less linear and more exponential, complex, and multi-faceted.

The human brain can easily process linear change and can predict the future based on analysis and extrapolation of the past. However, the information and technology revolutions have complicated matters greatly, making change far less understandable. As a result, predicting the future is not only much more complex, but it is also one of the most significant leadership challenges of the modern age.

Leaders in the past relied on being able to present a clear vision for the future, based on the ability to understand the present and analyze the past. Leaders today do not have this luxury. Yet, the public still expects them to provide a sense of certainty and assurance against a background of often frightening uncertainty.

Populist leaders are well versed in taking advantage of this existential public anxiety, marketing themselves as resolute leaders with solutions. Every statement and every tweet is accompanied by an exclamation mark, attracting the support of those who prefer to live without doubts and question marks about the future. By contrast, leaders who question, who understand that they do not understand, are often perceived as weak. Yet, it is they who cope better with global change.

I well remember that Shimon Peres, during his time as Prime Minister, was ridiculed by some for acknowledging multiple views, for saying yes and no at the same time. It has taken me many years to realize that his ability to see each matter in a complex and dialectic way, to view both sides of the issue, is essential to modern leadership.

Peres demonstrated how modern leaders need to be learners rather than knowers, because much of the old knowledge and way of thinking has become not only irrelevant, but a barrier towards dealing with the unknown and the unfamiliar. Peres showed me that curiosity, imagination, creativity and also intellectual modesty serve us much better than knowledge and understanding of the past.

This realization was further sharpened for me when I studied Prof Ronald Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (thanks to a scholarship from the Wexner Foundation). Heifetz argued that adaptive leadership, rather than technical leadership, is better suited to tackling today’s new and unfamiliar challenges because it brings about deeper learning and eventually understanding for a wide range of people, rather than relying on the leadership of an all-knowing and charismatic leader.

When I accompanied Peres in diplomatic meetings, I was always impressed by leaders who asked questions and were comfortable expressing doubt, rather than asserting foregone conclusions.

One prominent example was Chancellor Angela Merkel, who knew how to listen and learn, rather than flaunt her knowledge. Another example was Pope Francis, who in a modest fashion, was able to break through the traditional dogma of the Catholic Church and take it to a new place, more accepting of difference and ‘the other’. Additionally, President Obama always examined each issue from every angle. He also realized that understanding the modern world requires learning and flexibility, not assertive recklessness. Many in the Middle East have interpreted Obama’s outlook as weakness, but history will judge otherwise.

When we look back at our own leaders, it is clear that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for example, who famously stuttered when addressing the public on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, was one of Israel’s best prime ministers. This stands in contrast to too many of our leaders who have made the mistake of hubris.

Returning to today, it is not surprising that the countries which are most successfully tackling the challenge of the corona crisis are those with leadership (mostly female) characterized by modesty, intellectual flexibility and the curiosity to learn ‘on the go’. This type of leadership does not look to provide an immediate, comprehensive answer that can be marketed to a confused public searching for certainty amid a chaotic reality.

This is something that the public in Israel must also internalize. The leaders we need do not have to be charismatic speakers, who trade in exclamation marks. Rather, we need modest leaders who tell us the truth even when it is unclear and requires us all to learn, leaders who courageously tackle real challenges rather than distractions.

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