During the coronavirus pandemic the media have criticised, scrutinised, analysed and hypothesised on actions and decisions made leaders from both the private and the public sector.  ‘Leadership’ comes under the microscope and many have an opinion on what is considered to be good leadership, bad leadership, and what is completely incomprehensible.  Judgement of world leaders can be seen throughout social media, and there are frequent reports in the mainstream media on the opinion of one leader’s views of another leader’s actions.   This is most evident with the recent strong opinion from Barrack Obama who described the COVID-19 situation in the USA as “an absolute chaotic disaster”.  Obama admits that “it would have been bad even with the best of government,” but he goes on to bring attention to “the justice department dropping charges against Michael Flynn” at such a time, and expresses concerns about the direction the country is going under the leadership of the Trump administration, as reported by the BBC.

There has been a lot of praise bestowed on female world leaders during the pandemic such as Angela Merkel with her composed scientific account of the situation in Germany; Jacinda Ardern who has demonstrated empathy and clear communication with the people of New Zealand; or Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon who is committed to a strategic documented approach.  Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic that the actions of these female leaders, and others, are not necessarily a result of them being woman, but more “that strongmen are doing worse” in the current climate.  Lewis criticises Donald Trump which echoes the views from Barrack Obama and it seems to support the argument.  Moreover, Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank and former Chair and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is quoted in The Guardian that had it been “Lehman Sisters”, rather than Lehman Brother, the world would be a different place following the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Lagarde says “the male domination of banking could lead to another financial crisis” as we are certainly witnessing, and she calls for more diversity in the financial sector.  This may lead to the old, and contentious, argument over who is the better sex, when really the overarching question needs to be what is ‘good leadership’ and what is ‘bad leadership’?

Nancy Koehn writes in Harvard Business Review that “Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis”.  Koehn describes that real leaders are not born but become evident by demonstrating distinct behaviours that steer people through difficult times.  Boris Johnson has just come under criticism for sending mixed messages with the new COVID-19 guidance for the United Kingdom to “Stay Alert”. Sky News reports that “leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland united in opposition to the prime minister’s new slogan” as it’s sending mixed messages to the British public.  The previous guidance to “stay at home” has been replaced with “stay at home as much as possible” so the steering is ambiguous and the public are left confused.  Paul Taylor comments in Politico that the Coronavirus crisis has exposed Johnson’s “inner clown” and describes the Prime Minister’s leadership style as a “tendency to chance his luck, improvise or distract in sticky situations and play for laughs or headlines rather than mastering the detail of complex issues”.

Within the private sector business leaders are not immune to criticism and scrutiny over their leadership during the Coronavirus crisis.  David Dawkins of Forbes highlights Richard Branson for “thinking of profit over people” when asking staff to take 8 weeks leave without pay.  Branson has supported this action and has said that it was the staff themselves who suggested the initiative, but Dawkins points out the Branson is listed on Forbes to have a net worth estimates at US$3.8 billion and could easily fund a much needed investment without the intervention and sacrifice from frontline staff.  Another contributor to Forbes, Nihar Chhaya, gives advice on the “Top Five Leadership Challenges During The Coronavirus Pandemic”.  This article offers solutions on many obvious situations but the best advice is to be “honest, consistent, and adaptive”.  According to Dr Peter DeLisle PhD, Leadership can be defined as “the ability to influence others, with or without authority”.  Those with a background in marketing or branding will know the ability to influence others “without authority” is often down to the strength of a brand and the company’s brand culture – both internally and externally.  This is very evident within a brand such as Virgin where employees are willing to make extreme sacrifices with autonomy and the absence of direct leadership.  Chhaya’s advice to leaders to be “honest, consistent, and adaptive” should come as no surprise as these should also be synthesised within the brand values.  Therefore, Koehn’s point that ‘real leaders’ are not born may be true but they must possess these basic core values as part of their ‘DNA’.  This will transpire to their business and brands and it will dictate every decision that they make.  Jennifer Small in Campaign Live considers the long-term consequences of brand value for company’s performance during the COVID-19 crisis.  Jane Ostler of Kantar comments that “companies will be judged on the way they treat people; their staff, their customers and society as a whole”.  Therefore, to add the core values already established, business leaders need to act with integrity if their brand are to sustain the short and long term impact of the global crisis.

For political leaders, they can learn a lot from the strength of a brand.  Donald Trump is very familiar with brand equity and this has been the foundation for the Trump Empire.  Boris Johnson is also no stranger to the strength of a brand and knows that many traditional Labour voters turned Tory in the last UK election simply because they voted for ‘brand Boris’.  However, the legacy of political leaders lasts longer in the history books than many commercial brands, and the individual performance of some brand’s creators, CEOs and leaders can be forgotten under dominance of an overarching brand reputation. But if someone such as Boris Johnson is to be remembered in the pages of history like his hero Winston Churchill, he would be wise to understand that leadership is not just cleaver marketing and sophisticated rhetoric, but a way of life that governs every action and decision.  Good business leaders know that their brands are only sustainable if they consider the needs of all stakeholders.  Political leaders must take the same approach and act with integrity, honesty, consistency, and adaptability which is does not include the “what’s in it for me” approach that has been so well noted by Barrack Obama.

About the author:

Mark BrittonMark Britton Jones is a Consultant Lecturer at Glion Institute of Higher Education and has delivered courses covering Luxury Brand Management in Hospitality, Marketing, Leadership and Intercultural Management, Conference & Event Management, New Product Development and Innovation, Operations Services, as well as dissertation supervision.

Britton Jones’ career spans more than 30 years in hospitality, airlines, and travel & tourism, which underpins the commercial know-how for the hospitality sector.  He is an independent consultant within the hotel industry and sits on the advisory board at the Considerate Group.

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