We often learn the most about leadership by observing our leaders in times of crisis. As world leaders attempt to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19, they must simultaneously perform two opposing and difficult tasks—prepare their countries for significant risk and avoid inciting panic.
What we’re seeing as a result is multiple test cases in crisis leadership, as several different countries face similar versions of the same problem and react with noticeably different approaches and results.
Focusing on the COVID-19 response in three continents—specifically examining China, Italy and the United States—there are clear takeaways and learnings on different aspects of the response to and management of the outbreak. These lessons are not only helpful to other countries as they manage their COVID-19 responses, but they also provide valuable examples for leaders in any field.
China shows limits of command and control and benefits of decisive action
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has been widely reported to have significant capacity for control, using vast state authority and a significant surveillance program. As the origin point of COVID-19, the Chinese government’s effort to control the virus has been watched by the entire world.
China responded with what the World Health Organization called “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” including closing down manufacturing sectors, sharing information widely, executing mass testing and quarantining millions of people. The Chinese government made the decision to absorb a significant short-term economic cost to contain COVID-19 rather than potentially lose control. It seems to be working as the number of new cases has steadily decreased in recent weeks and people are getting back to work and factories are ramping up.
This is an example of the benefit of command and control leadership and decisive action to immediately consolidate efforts into an aggressive response.
However, it’s worth considering the erosion of trust this type of system creates. The Atlantic documented the ways in which local Chinese officials underreported the spread of COVID-19 to the federal government, as the Wuhan province failed to report the outbreak until weeks after it began and downplayed the likelihood of human transmission until whistleblowers stepped forward—and were subsequently punished. This delay cost China valuable time in containing the initial outbreak.
When people are afraid to come forward to tell the truth and are discouraged from speaking up, critical information often does not reach leadership until the problem has intensified. While it cannot be known for sure, the COVID-19 outbreak may have been contained earlier had early warnings been escalated.
Italy demonstrates peril of slow response and lack of coordination
The epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe has been Italy, which saw a rapid increase of cases over the past two weeks—the number of cases even jumped by 50 percent in a single day on March 1.
In part because the outbreak in Italy intensified so quickly, there was a lack of consistency in the Italian government’s response. CNN reported that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte acknowledged a “not entirely proper,” management of a North Italy hospital helped contribute to the outbreak. Even as the virus spread, the Italian government and tourism heads tried to convey that everything was under control and that it was business as usual, encouraging tourists not to cancel their visits.
Just two days later, Italy drastically scaled up their response, shutting down schools, sporting events and tourism sites, following China’s example. Then, this week, Italy took quarantine measures nationally, effectively placing the entire country in lockdown. These rapidly different and changing messages coming from the Italian government have created confusion and frustration for both citizens and tourists.
The lesson is clear—in a crisis, leaders can create panic and distrust when they rapidly change their messaging. It seems the country’s officials underestimated the potential spread of the virus and various groups and stakeholders were not acting in coordination. When significant problems arise, leaders must be careful to avoid saying something they will end up contradicting later.
The United States tries to control the narrative
The United States’ exposure to COVID-19 has been comparatively limited, but the threat is increasing by the day and the country is on high alert and preparing for the worst. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been cautioning Americans to prepare for a potential outbreak since February 25, and Vice President Mike Pence has been tasked with leading the government’s coordinated response.
Even President Donald Trump’s allies would likely admit that this challenge is out of step with his leadership tendencies. President Trump likes to control the narrative surrounding his administration and tries to avoid unfavorable press coverage. This causes him to downplay issues to win the PR battle, as he did in late February in response to a sudden stock market downturn.
Trump has shown a tendency during difficult situations to rely heavily on his inner circle, including his son in law, rather than subject matter experts and to state opinions as facts. This has created several situations where he has contradicted experts on his own task force attempting to educate the public, most notably by consistently overstating the scientifically acknowledged timeline to create a vaccine.
Trump has also questioned the reported fatality rate of the virus, saying in an interview “I think the 3.4 percent [number] is really a false number,” without providing a factual basis for his own assessment or “hunch”. This does not inspire trust and confidence with the masses.
In business, attempting to control the narrative is a common way to respond to public adversity, and it can work when there is not a large divergence from the underlying facts. Just as a leader of a struggling startup might do, the American government has attempted to alleviate concerns and assure Americans COVID-19 has already been contained, when it’s becoming clearer by the day that is not the case.
However, the virus does not respond to public perception. While the future of COVID-19 in America is unclear, if the virus follows the same pattern of escalation as in China and Italy, there will likely be a lot of criticism of the President’s initial response.
Crisis management is perhaps the most difficult test for leaders. This is especially true for a case like COVID-19, which does not have a comparable historical precedent or solution and where the threat is evolving constantly.
Leaders in all fields can learn from countries’ responses: problems are best preempted in environments of trust and transparency, challenges are best faced with cohesive, decisive and consistent action. They should also realize that winning the short-term news cycle isn’t a long-term solution. Only time will tell exactly how effective the world’s leaders have been and which strategies produced the best outcome.