6 things we can learn from how women leaders have handled the pandemic

Sep 24, 2020 /

Times of crisis can foster innovation and illumination.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the ability of world leaders to respond to its enormous and interlocking challenges. Some have stumbled, while some have risen to the occasion.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox — the CEO of 20-first, a global gender-balance consultancy based in the UK — has been particularly interested in what we can learn from women leaders, and she points out that many of the countries with the strongest initial response to the global crisis have been led by women. This is more than just a casual observation.

In fact, an analysis of 194 countries revealed that infection and fatality rates in the first three months of the pandemic were generally lower in countries with female leaders.

One possible reason: Many women-led countries made the controversial discussion to go into lockdown earlier. That said, only 7 percent of the world’s leaders are women, so it may be a small sample to draw conclusions from (interestingly, that’s the percentage of women CEOs in the Fortune 500).

Wittenberg-Cox has identified four common threads in women’s leadership during the pandemic: trust, decisiveness, tech, love.

She emphasizes that good leaders from both genders all used the first three (trust, decisiveness, tech), but the fourth factor — love — is what really set the women apart. “What I found very interesting is these women were much more ready and comfortable expressing love and care while leading,” she says.

Here are her major takeaways from the actions of women leaders, and how we can use them to adapt to the future.

1. Include everyone

The most successful leaders included everyone in their plans. “They make it very explicit that they care for everybody; they don’t keep anyone out,” Wittenberg-Cox says. She points to Erna Solberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister who held coronavirus instructional events for children to help ease their fears — despite the fact that they’re not part of the voting population yet.

“I think some leaders are motivated by love and care of their populace, and other leaders will use fear and power,” she adds, noting when empathic male leaders lead from a place of love, they often express it as care or compassion.

2. Be authentic

The pandemic has been far from a great equalizer — in fact, it disproportionately affects the people of color — but it’s made many of us more aware of the struggles of others.

Even if you’re a politician, sharing your personal experience can be a revelation that connects you to other people. In the early days of the virus, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted an informal Facebook Live Q&A to “check in with everyone.”

Dressed in sweats and addressing the nation from her home, she said, “Excuse the casual attire,” explaining, “It can be a messy business putting toddlers to bed.” This kind of openness is about leaders “revealing their personal and professional realities without shame,” says Wittenberg-Cox.

Ardern has managed to get her country’s citizens on her side, and thanks to their adherence to the rules, New Zealand had zero new coronavirus cases for a remarkable 100 days. While a small cluster of new cases arose in August, the country is back to zero new cases again.

Now is the time to remove any unnecessary barriers between the personal and professional. (Anyone who has done anything embarrassing in their home on a work Zoom call should be able to relate.)

3. Tell the truth

Of course, “love alone isn’t going to get you very far,” says Wittenberg-Cox. “Truth is enormously important, because truth builds trust.” She describes great leaders as “rational optimists.” In other words, they can help employees manage uncertainty by, as she puts it, “showing what they know, what they don’t know, and sharing the optimism that you’ll all get through something together.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel did just that when Germany was first reeling from this coronavirus. Her staunch reliance on the facts — the country’s coronavirus policy and lockdown efforts were informed by data from epidemiological models and advice from medical providers — helped guide the country to a lower death rate than many other industrialized countries. But she never shied away from voicing unsettling truths, either, saying recently, “There are indications that things will become more difficult in coming months … It’s serious … Continue to take it seriously.”

4. Be decisive

Decisiveness — it’s a leadership quality that’s especially hard to embody in times of stress and uncertainty and in the face of an unfolding threat like COVID-19. But some women leaders still managed to act.

Under the watchful eye of President Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan was perhaps better prepared than many other countries. Having learned some tough lessons from the SARS outbreak, they had a government pandemic plan — including contact tracing, quarantining and an abundance of masks — and the infrastructure in place should a pandemic strike again. At this point, the country has had one of the lowest coronavirus death counts in the world, despite its proximity to the first epicenter in Wuhan, China.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has received similar praise for her decisive pandemic actions, including a robust stimulus package (equivalent of over four percent of the country’s GDP). So far, Bangladesh’s economy is showing strong signs of recovery.

It’s important to note that being decisive doesn’t mean acting alone. Women leaders used the wisdom from many people, organizations and sources to get the input needed to map their country’s path to the future. Those kinds of decisions will usually be stronger than those made in a silo. By contrast, leaders who’ve wavered or contradicted themselves during this pandemic have ended up causing confusion and division in their countries.

5. Embrace technology

The pandemic has shown us that technology can offer some solutions. Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir kicked off an intensive screening and tracking system for the country, which saw early success battling the virus, and she has now instituted double-testing and mandatory quarantine for travelers. In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin launched a contract tracing app and leveraged the power of social media influencers to help share knowledge about preventing the disease’s spread. Taiwan also doubled down on tech — among its innovations have been using QR codes and an online reporting system for travelers, as well as a toll-free hotline to report symptoms or cases.

6. Leaders of every kind can learn from these women

You don’t have to lead a country to be inspired by these women. During the pandemic, women in organizations and corporations have shown that we can all use our positions to effect change. For example, some notable women officials have united to push for further testing, such as H.E. Amira Elfadil Mohammed Elfadil, the Social Affairs Commissioner of the African Union, and Aminata Touré, president of Senegal’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council. Still others from Ethiopia and Singapore have joined together to write national appeals. 

People at organizations of all types and sizes — from companies to schools to community groups — can benefit from incorporating truth, decisiveness, tech and love into their thoughts and actions. Realizing we’re all in this together and behaving in a way that embodies this attitude are key. Knowing and trusting that the person at the top, whoever they may be, is committed to advancing the interests of the whole can raise spirits and keep everyone looking toward the future.

“That’s what great leaders do,” says Wittenberg-Cox. “They inspire, reveal and empower others to become great leaders, too.”

Watch her TEDxHultLondon Talk here: