With Martin G. Moore

Episode #93

COVID-19 Leadership Scorecard: Who are the standouts?

Through the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen some stark examples of leadership in crisis, both good and bad, as countries have tried to come to terms with the pandemic, and the impacts on their people and economies.

Some leaders have fared better than others. This episode looks at some of the misconceptions about what constitutes good leadership (hint: look at the results first), and identifies some of the poorer leadership behaviours and approaches that we’ve witnessed.

As the world moves onto the next stage of the pandemic response, these leadership lessons will be worth bearing in mind. The principles of leading through a crisis are the same, but assume even greater importance than they have in a more benign context.

If you enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast on your favourite podcast player so that we can impact even more leaders!

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Episode #93 COVID-19 Leadership Scorecard: Who are the standouts?

Hey there and welcome to episode 93 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode Covid-19 Leadership Scorecard, who are the standouts? Through the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen some excellent examples of leadership in crisis both good and bad as countries have tried to come to terms with the pandemic and the impacts on their people and economies. Today, I’m going to take a look at some leaders who appear to have done really well and I’ll also identify some of the poorer leadership behaviours and approaches that we’ve witnessed, without naming names, you know who you are. For context, I recorded this on the 30th of May, 2020 and by the time some of you listen to it, the world will have moved on in a fairly major way. Having said that, I think this episode is going to stand the test of time. Let’s face it, when it comes to leadership, the principles really don’t change that much. So we’ll start by visiting our old friend attribution bias. I’ll then move on to look at which countries are the winners and we’ll finish with a look at the best and worst of leadership throughout the pandemic to date. So let’s get into it.

There was an article published in Forbes online in mid April. What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Women leaders. Now you know what, I actually wanted that to be true, but I sort of knew deep down what the flaw was in the argument before I even read the abstract. This is a classic case of attribution bias. It’s what we all tend to do when we attribute an outcome to a particular cause that may or may not have had anything to do with the outcome. For example, I could attribute my poor round of golf this morning to the fact that I didn’t wear my lucky socks, but that would be an incorrect attribution of cause and effect. I posted a bad score because my rhythm and my timing was sh!t. I became more and more frustrated when I wasn’t striking the ball cleanly and I struggled through much of the back nine.

So looking at an outcome and then retrospectively attributing a course for that outcome is fraught. We all have the capacity to rationalise and to tell ourselves stories that fit our worldview. Now, the leaders sighted in the Forbes article, were of course, all politicians so there is something, but the first problem with the article was that there’s no real qualification of what actually constitutes a great response, as opposed to an average or poor response. There was a table referencing the number of deaths in each country cited, so let’s just go with that. Now I know what it’s like to be given an 800 word limit for an article, so we have to cut the author a little bit of slack here, but there’s a pretty simple two step process. The first step, what is it that defines a good outcome? And the second step, what role does leadership play in achieving that outcome?

Now I reckon, the number of deaths attributable to Covid-19 per capita of population is about as good a measure of success as any, but it ignores dozens of other metrics that could be equally important. How about a more holistic measure? For example, average cost to the economy per additional year of life saved. Statisticians and economists just go gooey over this type of stuff. But we’ll keep it simple, and use the Covid-19 per capita death rate. Now this still doesn’t factor in the subsequent economic damage that countries will feel as they come through the other side of the health crisis. Arguably, this is also a pretty important measure as it will fundamentally change the levels of prosperity in many countries for a generation. Now let’s think about what factors might be important in minimising the Covid-19 death rate. The article didn’t discuss any of these but focused on four leadership attributes, truth, decisiveness, the use of technology and love.

Well, okay, but for example, is population density an issue? Is ICU capacity and equipment availability a factor and if so, to what extent can we lay praise or blame on the President, or Prime Minister or Governor for that? Do border closures play a part? Is the speed of imposing social distancing and isolation lockdowns a winning strategy? Now this would all seem to make sense as rapid lockdowns could be considered an outcome of decisive leadership. But the best performing country in the world by far is Taiwan, coincidentally, led by a female president, Tsai Ing-wen. And Taiwan didn’t impose draconian lockdowns. What was Tsai Ing-wen’s secret sauce then? Taiwan has incredible population density compared to countries like Australia and New Zealand. Or let’s look at Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor who was also cited in the article for her superb leadership. Now Germany’s per capita death rate when I recorded this episode was 1 in 10,000. Australia’s death rate is an order of magnitude less 1 death for every 250,000 people.

Does this mean that Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, is a better leader than Angela Merkel? Not so much, I suspect. But it clearly doesn’t support the conclusion that Angela Merkel is a better leader than Scott Morrison either. Another honourable mention went to Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Iceland’s total population is around 365,000 I’ve been in smaller country towns and it has a population density of 3.5 people per square kilometre. Like Australia, it’s one of the least populous countries in the world. England’s population density is 435 people per square kilometre, well over a hundred times the population density of Iceland. And in terms of people passing through their international airports, more passengers go through the London airports of Gatwick and Heathrow every two weeks than Iceland sees in a whole year. So how valid would a comparison be between Iceland’s Prime Minister and Boris Johnson of England for example? Instead of England, perhaps we compare Iceland to Australia. They’ve got very similar population densities and both countries are reasonably remote. Still, Iceland has had over seven times the per capita death rate of Australia. I could do this all day, but you get the point. Have some of the leaders cited in the article done a great job? Absolutely. Have other leaders been excluded because they were male and didn’t fit the hypothesis? Absolutely. Just consider the multiple inconveniences of President Xi Jinping of China. For a start, the virus originated in China, not real popular. Secondly, President Xi is obviously male. Thirdly, China is a communist country currently at odds with the USA and many of its allies. But China’s swift action once it became clear what was happening in Hubei province likely prevented millions of deaths throughout the rest of China and countless others globally. Or we could look at Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore, where the death rate at the end of May was about the same as Australia’s at 1 in 250,000, despite Singapore being the second most densely populated country on the planet and a major international travel hub.

I want to pause for a moment to recap on what I just did. I chose a metric to use as a way to judge what constitutes a successful response to the pandemic. And whereas the one I’ve chosen is as good as any, you could passionately argue a case for many others and remember, we’re still only playing out the first quarter of this game. I had the benefit of an extra six plus weeks of data at least over the author who penned the Forbes article, which gave me the benefit of hindsight that she didn’t have. Who knows? In six months we might be looking at countries like Sweden and saying, “Wow, even though we wouldn’t have thought so at the time they’re in a better longterm position than any other country. What great leadership”. Anyhow, what I did then was to pick on a few criteria that seemed logical and use those to assess the relative ease or difficulty that each country might’ve faced in containing the virus.

The two I chose were population density and international travel volumes. Now it’s quite feasible that these natural attributes could play an equally important role as the choices that countries politicians make in containing the virus. I’m sure Australia and New Zealand were helped enormously by our geographical advantages where our remoteness made it easy to impose strict border controls. But why then is it that countries like Taiwan and Singapore are such outliers in terms of their results? High population density and high international traffic volume countries yet with some of the lowest death rates in the world. Let’s just do a quick dive on Taiwan as it has indisputably managed the most effective response to the virus in terms of its containment. Taiwan should have had a really high death rate due to its proximity to China. So it’s likely that President Xi, draconian lockdown on the mainland, assisted by stopping much of the flow of people who would have otherwise carried the virus into Taiwan. But there’s something much more important to consider here.

Taiwan achieved its success despite having no business closures, no preemptive school closures and no bans on social gatherings. Taiwan didn’t need to suffer the massive costs that the other countries are going to have to endure on the other side of this pandemic. Why? Well for a start Taiwan was hit extremely hard by the SARS epidemic in 2003 and that led them to build in some precautions against future pandemics. They had a high level of preparedness. They also had an extremely high level of fear of this type of outbreak in their general population. This made any government mandate extraordinarily easy to implement with almost total compliance. While we’re in Australia bitching and moaning about the smallest encroachment on our civil liberties, when we were asked to use a completely innocuous technology to assist with contact tracing, the residents of Taiwan understand the necessity for intervention in times like these and they just take it in their stride. To look at Taiwan’s response,

I’m going to use a little help from Tomas Pueyo, The Stanford MBA and Silicon Valley exec who’s written the most intelligent and well-considered set of articles on the pandemic that I’ve read. He looks at the problem purely as a number crunching exercise and he makes sense of all the globally available data. In his article, Coronavirus Learning How to Dance, Pueyo lists some of the key measures that Taiwan took, which he compiled from other sources. These included, early and strict travel bans, updated daily. Centralised production management of masks, starting at 2.4 million a day, which was twice the need of 1.3 million at the time. And they also set the price to avoid profiteering. They outlawed the spread of fake news, which could be punished with a $100,000 U S fine and they had proactive detection of cases. They tested everyone who’d previously had flu symptoms but had tested negative for the flu.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Travel and healthcare databases were connected so healthcare professionals could know who was at high risk of being infected and the Taiwanese CDC could track what was happening on the field in real time. It triaged travellers based on their risk from free to enter the country with self-monitoring through to mandated quarantines. Anyone in quarantine was tracked by the Taiwanese government through their phone signal. And if people didn’t have a phone, the government provided them with one so they could be tracked. An alert was sent to the authorities if the handset was turned off for more than 15 minutes and people who weren’t compliant with these home quarantine orders were turned over to police. This stuff doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the gender of the prime minister or the population density of the country. It has to do with the preparedness for such an event prior to it striking and the culture of its people for doing the right things based on their previous bad experiences.

As a result, Taiwan’s per capita death rate currently sits at 1 death for every 3 million odd people in the country. Compare this, to the populous state of New York where the per capita death rate sits at around 1 death for every 650 living in the state. So the New York death rate is over 5,000 times greater than Taiwan’s. Can we draw the conclusion that Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership is better than Andrew Cuomo’s, the Governor of New York? Well, not necessarily. From what I can see, Andrew Cuomo has done a pretty good job of leading through this crisis. But New York was given a much bigger sh!t sandwich than Taiwan with such an incredible lack of preparedness in the system for just such an event. Then again, I guess as Governor since 2011, Cuomo might rue not having invested prudently in crisis management planning. Now I’m the first to say that leadership drives culture and culture drives performance and I truly believe that, but there are times when we attribute more to leadership than we actually should. I’ve seen how resilient certain organisations in industries can be. If you’re in a large company riding the upward cycle in an industry, Mickey Mouse could run the company and look pretty decent as a leader. But at the same company, in an industry where the economics are against it, the best CEO in the world won’t be able to change that outcome. In the words of David Yoffie at Harvard Business School, “Sometimes you just find yourself in a six star sh!tty industry” and this applies equally to countries and their political leaders.

JF Roxburgh, the first Headmaster of the Stowe school in England, said that the purpose of education was to turn out students with good character and moral courage. Men who would be in his words “acceptable at a dance invaluable in a shipwreck”. Which world leaders have actually been invaluable in the Covid-19 shipwreck? Because we have listeners in so many countries I want to talk about the general trends in leadership performance I’ve observed over last four or five months rather than singling out any individuals for in depth analysis or critique.

I do want to mention one leader by name who coincidentally made it onto the list of female leaders in the Forbes article. I think what she’s demonstrated has been a true standout leadership performance during this time because she’s been able to demonstrate decisiveness and strength mixed with true compassion and human connection and it’s not a one off. She’s got form. Of course, I’m talking about New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Now I wasn’t hugely optimistic when Ardern was elected Prime Minister in 2017. She’s a career politician and political staffer who put together an eyebrow raising alliance with the right wing populous party to form her minority government. But Ardern has distinguished herself during this crisis. She managed to put together a strategy which required some very difficult decisions and then managed to communicate this strategy to the New Zealand people to align their thinking so that they will comply with the government directions. They had to take some pretty tough medicine. She looked at and understood the data from other countries where the virus had overwhelmed their medical systems and she chose to go hard early. Border lockdowns and mandatory isolation for the New Zealand people, but she explained why this was the case and what the objectives were.

We see what happens in countries and states where the strategy is confused and the communication is less effective. People eventually resort to protest and rebellion. Ardern used a regular communications feed of interviews, press conferences and social media posting to ensure she could talk to everyone in the way they prefer to consume their information. She would post really relaxed social media videos from her living room, which gave her a tremendous sense of authenticity and relatability. She always had a smile on her face, but it was in an appropriate way that said, “Hey, this is tough but we’re all okay and we’re going to get through this”. There was no panic. There was no doom and gloom. It was just pragmatic, clear messaging. She even addressed the children of New Zealand directly to tell them that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were classified as essential workers and to not be concerned about them not making an appearance at the appropriate time. There was no blame shifting. There was no political manoeuvring. There was no point scoring. Let’s get back to the results though. Australia with our leader, Scott Morrison, responded a little more cautiously than did Ardern in New Zealand, imposing less stringent measures more gradually. Yet as at the end of May, the rate of testing, the rate of infection and the rate of death between New Zealand and Australia are almost identical. It’ll be interesting to see the economic and social outcomes of the respective countries as we come out the other side.

Let’s have a quick chat about the not so good. First of all, we’ve seen a huge amount of accountability ducking and blame shifting, particularly with there is confusion about whether federal or state governments are accountable for certain parts of the outcome. It’s always a bad look and it polarises people generally along the lines of their own shallow parochial interests. Another classic poor leadership symptom we’ve seen is misinformation and misinformation has been rife around this pandemic, quite often, used by political leaders for their own personal advantage. Another problem we’ve seen frequently is leaders making decisions that just don’t pass the reasonableness test, such as setting hard rules that don’t sufficiently take into account the context. For example, in the first phase of reopening restaurants and cafes in Australia, a 10 person limit was imposed. Now some cafes are pretty small and I reckon there’d be even some whose total licensed capacity is only 10 people, but other restaurants are spacious and airy with licence capacity of say 150 people.

Surely a percentage of licensed capacity, data which the government already holds and the licensee knows all about, it’s easy to understand and police, would be a better way of doing things. So say you could have 20 or 25% of your licence capacity, which has already taken into account the floor space and amenity. The 10 person limit makes it impossible for many venues to open profitably, so they continue in lockdown until restrictions are further relaxed, potentially keeping them out of business for many more months. Now to finish, I want to focus on one key leadership failing that most people and certainly the media seem to not have picked up on. A number of political leaders have derogated their accountability for making decisions to a bunch of epidemiologists and medical professionals. This is extraordinarily dangerous. Even though they’re smart people, their instinct will always be to take a very conservative approach to the problem.

Just look at the original epidemiological modelling. We haven’t come anywhere near the infection and death rates initially predicted. Now there could be a little bit of the year 2000 problem in this if we hadn’t acted so strongly perhaps the doomsday scenarios in the models may have come true. It’s important to be guided by the best medical advice available, but they are only one source of expert input in a multifaceted problem. How about consulting economists, mental health professionals, business leaders, social welfare groups? The list goes on and on. There are a whole lot of stakeholders in this that can help you look at a problem from different angles. Saving every life is critical, but not at any cost. We don’t take this approach in any other aspect of society, so why would we do it here? The cynic in me says there’s politics afoot. Now, if you derogate your accountability by giving decision making rights to the medical authorities, the problem is twofold.

First, you may not get the best answer and decisions because the balance of factors is less likely to be considered. It’ll be the most conservative view possible. And secondly, once a decision is made, you may find that you’re painted into a corner that you’ll find it very hard to get out of. Let me give you an example from my time as a CEO. When trying to make a decision whether or not to bring legal action against one of our suppliers, I consulted the lawyers. And I consulted them strongly and heavily and they did a hell of a lot of background work on the contract to determine what the likelihood of success was and what our risks were. And that legal opinion was really important. But guess what? I didn’t let the lawyers make that decision. The decision was left up to me and the board of directors.

Why? Because the lawyers were always going to take the most conservative view. We also had to think about public relations. We had to think about operations. We had to think about the cost of doing things a certain way. So I asked the CFO, I asked the Chief Operating Officer, we consulted with our media people. I took all of these pieces of information together and then made a recommendation to the Board. If I had just gone with the legal opinion, it would have been a very, very different recommendation that I put up. As a leader, you’re paid to balance a whole range of very, very difficult and sometimes competing criteria to come up with the best decision possible. If you just turn around and say, “Don’t talk to me, talk to the legal expert or talk to the medical expert”, guess what? You’re not leading.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of episode 93. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few minutes to rate and review the podcast. It’s going to enable us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode where we’ll have another live mentoring session for you.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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