A Test of Leadership

By Anjum Altaf

Every single person is at risk — Prince Charles and Boris Johnson have tested positive — which makes this a crisis unprecedented in living memory and a supreme test of leadership. No one will get everything right but no one can afford to get everything wrong. Where leaders come out on the spectrum will determine how many live or die in each country. And the number of days it takes to arrive at the right decisions will determine the quantum of avoidable deaths.

Regimes can be characterised by a set of attributes — integrity, transparency, competence, legitimacy, authority. An ideal regime would possess all — it would be honest, transparent and competent, trusted by citizens and with the authority to get things done. In the real world we have to make do with some mix that allows countries to muddle through for better or worse in normal times.

It is in times of great crises that the relative balance between these attributes stands out with striking salience. It is no use having an honest regime that is incompetent. It is only a little better to have a competent regime distrusted by its citizens. Amongst the attributes, competence clearly commands centrality — without it all is lost — but it needs be accompanied by either trust or authority to translate policy into action. 

Consider the response of various countries to the current pandemic in this perspective. The Chinese regime was non-transparent, trying to cover up the problem till the number of deaths made that impossible. A study claims that if the same interventions had been made three weeks earlier, infections could have been slashed by 95%. Even so, once it decided to act it did so with competence backed by the authority, if not the trust, to compel compliance with draconian measures.

South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were high on almost all attributes and have positive outcomes to show for it. In these countries, as well as in China, the key was decisive action. Transparency enabled an early start to prevent avoidable deaths. Trust helped to avoid recourse to coercive authority for compliance. 

It is not the case that there was only one right remedy to follow everywhere. The above-mentioned countries adopted varying paths depending on what they felt would work best in their context. What was common was that the action was decisive, even when it was delayed as in China. It also comes across very clearly that in each country there was an overall strategy and a tightly coordinated plan to guide the implementation. 

This raises the crucial question: How does leadership arrive at the strategy to be followed, convince the citizens of its logic, and arrange to have it implemented? One would assume it would elicit the best advice possible from credible domain specialists to determine the strategy, communicate it honestly to the public, commit the government to its implementation, and appoint the most competent administrators to do so.

The last thing one would want is for the leader to assume the role of the expert and choose strategy based on gut feelings, hunches or personal faith. Even less would one want implementation to be parcelled out to friends no matter how honest or well-intentioned they may be. Consider, as an example, the path followed by Donald Trump as a result of which the USA is now the centre of the pandemic with all the resources of the richest country insufficient to contain the damage.

The USA is fortunate that there are competent experts and administrators who are valiantly trying to mitigate the damage caused by their President. But what is to be done in countries where people are neither appointed nor promoted on the basis of competency, where leaders feel they know everything that needs be known, where the population does not trust the leadership, where the authority to implement is weak, and where administrators can’t distinguish between a holding pen, a quarantine and an isolation ward? 

Some remedies need to be found in a hurry if the worst-case outcome is to be avoided. The first step is to assemble a panel of credible domain specialists and introduce it to the citizenry.  

The panel would recommend a home-grown strategy considering not just the nature of the virus but that of the population that has to be convinced and protected. It would weigh, for example, how much a lockdown will buy if mosques remain open while parks are padlocked or if mandis have to remain functional to ensure essential supplies? How long can a lockdown be sustained where millions survive on what they earn every day? What does social isolation mean where many live eight to a room? How do those lacking water and money wash their hands frequently with soap?

All these answers have to be found quickly which is why there is need to locate the most qualified experts whether from home or abroad and whether politically acceptable or otherwise. This is not the time for settling scores, doling out favours, or applying ideological litmus tests. Too much is at stake for business as usual.

In this spirit, an off-the-wall choice to implement the consensus strategy in Pakistan could demonstrate the seriousness with which the ongoing crisis is being viewed and the extent to which parochial interests can be set aside for national welfare. What would it take to making Shahbaz Sharif the Corona Czar in the Punjab? There is no one in the province the public considers more decisive and capable as an administrator. Notwithstanding his misplaced vision and priorities for development, given a well-defined task there is no one else who inspires more confidence in the ability to get things done. 

Let this be Shahbaz Sharif’s path to redemption. With Murad Shah doing a credible job in Sindh, this could open a path beyond the acrimony and distrust that has crippled the politics of the country to the lasting misfortune of its people. We could move towards a saner, more hopeful, future and we may also save a lot of lives in the bargain.

This opinion appeared in The News on April 10, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Dr. Altaf has degrees in Economics and Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. 

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