An Interview with Professor Nicola Pless
A recent conversation between John North, GRLI Executive Director and Professor Nicola Pless offers key findings from the 2021 Journal of Change Management article reflecting on the role that leadership has played in the response to the global Covid-19 crisis. The article is co-authored by Thomas Maak, Nicola M. Pless & Franz Wohlgezogen. See full citation below.
John North: What is your article about?
Nicola Pless: The article compares functional and responsible approaches of political leadership to the Covid-19 crisis with dysfunctional and irresponsible ones.
We contrasted the pandemic leadership of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, with the leadership approaches of former US President Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil.
More specifically, we draw attention to the fault lines of leadership in the global Covid-19 crisis — narcissism and rigid ideology — and showed that compassionate leadership and evidence-based decision making (in contrast to narcissistic and ideologically rigid approach) are important for public leaders to effectively and responsibly deal with crisis situations.
JN: Why is it important?
NP: In times of crisis people are often disoriented, experience fear, despair and hopelessness. They need guidance by leaders who instil in people a sense of hope into the future, who are aware of and care about their needs, do their best to bring the crisis under control, and provide support for their citizens to get through the crisis.
Lack of effective crisis leadership can have undesired consequences, such as uncontrollable spread of the virus, high death rates as well as rising numbers of mental health issues.
JN: What are the key findings?
NP: Our analysis shows that there are two fault lines or breaking points in constructive crisis leadership practice — narcissism and ideological rigidity.
Narcissism is a personality disorder with features such as grandiose sense of self-importance, lack of empathy, and a disproportionate sense of entitlement. Ideological rigidity means to stick to underlying assumptions and belief systems without questioning them. This is particularly dangerous in public office when these assumptions are ill informed and based on fiction instead of scientific facts.
We found these fault lines of leadership (narcissism and ideological rigidity) represented in the leadership of two male leaders (Bolsonaro and Trump). This toxic leadership became evident in the
- Neglect of the emotional needs and concerns of their fellow citizens
- Failure to instil hope in people and create shared societal goals to manage the crisis
- Failure to build trusting and sustainable relationships to stakeholders as followers
- The inability to bring people together, mobilize them and enact a constructive crisis response.
- Failure to contain the spread of the virus, which lead to the highest rates of death in the world.
Both fault lines undermine a leader’s ability to constructively engage with stakeholders and respond to the Covid-19 crisis as record infection rates as well as death rates showed.
The two female political leaders — Ardern and Merkel — demonstrated a contrasting approach, showcasing compassionate leadership and evidence-based decision making.
These constructive and responsible forms of crisis leadership became evident in
- Early containment of the virus,
- Responding to the emotional needs and concerns of their fellow citizens,
- Investment in instilling hope and trust in people through transparency as well as active and compassionate communication,
- Mobilizing others in crisis management through shared societal goals, and
- Realization of clear strategy and an evidence-based approach.
However, even constructive leaders like Angela Merkel experience set-backs as increases in infections and death rates showed in Germany after the lifting of travel bans during the summer holidays in 2020. Therefore, as we learn from New Zealand, a tight interplay of constructive leadership, crisis-focussed policies (e.g. consistent travel bans and border controls) and responsible followership (wearing masks, applying hygiene measures, avoiding crowds and large gatherings) among citizens are required in order to successfully manage the Covid-19 pandemic.
JN: What do you recommend from here for leaders?
Our recommendation is straightforward: less narcissism and more compassion; less ideology, and instead open-mindedness and evidence-based decision making coupled with crisis-proven policies and responsible followership.
We recommend leaders do the following:
- Take every crisis seriously and act quickly to avoid spread of the virus.
- Transcend self-interest, lead with compassion, and focus on both the needs of fellow citizens and containment of the virus.
- Collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders to generate a clear strategy and the best crisis response approach.
- Make evidence-based decisions and act upon shared societal goals.
- Mobilize others in the management of the crisis through role modelling and consistent and transparent communication.
- Demand responsible followership in support of commonly shared values (e.g. discipline as the flipside that ensures liberty).
- Stay in touch and frequently communicate with fellow citizens.
- Develop crisis proven policies and demand discipline.
Furthermore, we recommend investment in responsible leadership development and practice. Such programs should focus on (1) raising self-awareness and fostering the practice of compassionate leadership, and (2) promoting open-mindedness and evidence-based thinking and decision making in leadership practice.
This interview draws on findings from the following research article:
Thomas Maak, Nicola M. Pless & Franz Wohlgezogen (2021) The Fault Lines of Leadership: Lessons from the Global Covid-19 Crisis, Journal of Change Management, 21(1), 66–86. Here is a link to this article and the PDF: https://doi.org/10.1080/14697017.2021.1861724
Professor Nicola M. Pless is Professor of Management, holds the Chair of Positive Business at the University of South Australia and is Director of the Center for Business Ethics and Responsible Leadership (BERL). She is a GRLI Independent Associate and a GRLI Guardian.