The novel coronavirus revealed the ability of world leaders to respond to an enormous health and economic crisis. It is clear as day that some have risen to the occasion while others falter.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox — the CEO of 20-first, a global gender-balance consultancy based in the UK – conducted a study of 194 countries and their responses to the pandemic. Countries with the most effective initial responses had one thing in common – they are all led by women leaders. Even as the world imploded, women leaders took charge and demonstrated lessons on decisiveness, transparency, and empathy.
An analysis of data reveals that mortality rates and infection spread were, on average, lower in countries with women leaders. A deeper evaluation suggests several possible reasons why – one of the most compelling factors was the decision to go into lockdown much earlier.
What’s more, women leaders demonstrated remarkably different leadership styles compared to their male counterparts. Wittenberg-Cox narrowed down a few takeaways from her comparative study of women-led countries during the pandemic.
Instead of instilling fear or panic, most women leaders operated from a space of empathy. Inclusive communication was at the core of successful responses to COVID-19. Women leaders allayed fears by including everyone in the conversation, regardless of whether they form a part of the voting population. For instance, Erna Solberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, held Coronavirus instructional events for children to help them deal with the crisis.
Forgoing official trappings in favor of authenticity were an outlier in successful leadership during the pandemic. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted Facebook Lives to ‘check-in with everyone.’ Her chats were stripped-down and informal, allowing citizens a peek into her realities as she juggled being a mother and the country’s leader. It reinforced the feeling that everyone – including Ardern herself – was in this together.
Women leaders demonstrated what Wittenberg-Cox calls rational optimism. Great leaders manage uncertainty to their followers by “showing what they know, what they don’t know, and sharing the optimism that you’ll all get through something together.”
One of the prime examples of this was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As Germany reeled from the coronavirus, Merkel relied on facts and expert advice to guide her lockdown efforts. Never one to mince words, she stayed true to her stance even during the pandemic. “There are indications that things will become more difficult in coming months … It’s serious … Continue to take it seriously,” she stated.
Decisiveness and prompt action distinguished most women leaders in their handling of the pandemic. Women leaders informed their decision-making with counsel from their advisors and various organizations to chart efficient strategies in tackling the virus.
Under President Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan’s response to the virus was incredibly commendable. Taking cues from lessons during the SARS outbreak, Taiwan had a government pandemic plan in place. While other countries were still coming to terms, Taiwan was already contact tracing, quarantining, and ensuring an abundance of masks. During the early days, Taiwan had one of the lowest coronavirus deaths globally despite its proximity to Wuhan, China.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also received praise for her prompt actions, including a strong stimulus package equivalent to over four percent of the country’s GDP.
Embracing technology and its possibilities mitigated the threats associated with the pandemic. Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir started an intensive screening and tracking system that contributed to successfully battling the virus early on. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin launched a contract tracing app to minimize the virus spread. She also enlisted social media influencers to share reliable information on the disease and preventing its spread.
Convention dictates that leaders demonstrate aggression and outright dominance, traditionally male characteristics. Challenging times call for effective leadership, and it might be time we rethink what the term means. It took a global crisis, but women leaders of the world exemplify successful, non-traditional leadership approaches.