The unprecedented situation we’re all facing right now has put world leaders under a new level of scrutiny. Some of them, of course, are drawing attention for their mishandling of the crisis – no prizes for guessing who – but many are drawing praise for their timely, compassionate and above all effective response. As it happens, a lot of the world leaders doing a great job right now are women.
Forbes recently honed in on seven premiers who have managed to keep this crisis under control in their own countries: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern; Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen; Germany’s Angela Merkel; Norway’s Erna Solberg; Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen; Finland’s Sanna Marin; and Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir. The article suggests that the impressive response of these leaders to the coronavirus pandemic shows that, now more than ever, we need to stop telling women that success lies in acting like powerful men. Instead, it’s long past time that men started learning some leadership lessons from women.
There are four key points outlined in the Forbes piece. Firstly, as a leader in a difficult situation, you should always clearly and calmly state the truth rather than fudging or grandstanding.
Secondly, having clarified what’s happening, you need to decisively choose a course of action. Explain why you’re doing it, and do it.
Thirdly, you need to use appropriate technology, whether that’s a system of testing and contact tracing or getting social media influencers to spread key information. (Note that this isn’t the same as jumping on a tech bandwagon to look up-to-date, but picking the right tools for the job.)
Finally, in a scary situation like this one, a good leader responds with love. This doesn’t make you look weak, or undermine your resolve and decisiveness. Instead, it shows that you actually know the stakes and are taking them seriously – in this case lives and livelihoods are on the line, so a bit of compassion is vital.
The Guardian also published a piece on this topic recently, asking why female leaders generally seem to be handling this crisis better. The article adds two new examples: Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten, whose “blunt message exemplified firm action, effective communication – and showed another female leader getting the job done”; and Jeong Eun-kyeong, “the unflappable head of South Korea’s centre for disease control” who shows that it’s not only in the political arena that female leaders are blazing a trail.
Importantly, though, this article points out that we shouldn’t jump to gendered conclusions here. Unsurprisingly when we’re talking about leadership, gender and a pandemic… things are pretty complicated.
If women are doing better at guiding their countries through this crisis, that isn’t necessarily because women are inherently better leaders. Every nation on earth, even the most liberal, raises kids of different genders in different ways, and that doesn’t stop in adulthood. Perhaps we’re just seeing the results of women being raised to respond well to crises of this type, which require a firm hand combined with a sense of compassion? Or maybe this is the fallout of men being under pressure to seem in control of everything, and reliant on no one (even scientists and medical professionals)?
It’s also possible that this is less a case of female leaders gaining the trust of their nations, and more of nations with more trust in government electing women. The Guardian quotes Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, who suggests just that, saying women are more likely to be elected leaders in “a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government”.
The disproportionate success of female world leaders in handling the coronavirus pandemic probably comes down to a whole range of different factors. Nature, nurture, social conditions, political systems, and any number of other things. But whatever the reasons, it’s clear that all of these women are modelling some exceptional leadership traits at the moment, in the middle of an unprecedented global crisis – and we can all learn a lot from them.