Covid-19 – not just a crisis of leadership, but also followership?

LIO master student Peter Gollowitsch has already reflected about the Special Issue “Leadership and the coronavirus crisis” in the journal “Leadership”. Here, Yiannis Gabriel, professor of leadership at the University of Bath, already reflected about the relationship between leaders and followers in the current crisis by drawing on a comparison between Homer’s Ulysses and Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens”. In a recent blog post, he extends these reflections to ask what we, as followers, can do to avoid a “regress to primitive forms of mental functioning” where we classify things as either good or evil and look for someone to blame for our troubles.

Instead, he suggests that we start by accepting uncertainty. “Like millions of people before us who lived through wars, dislocations, famines, and natural disasters, we must understand that safety and certainty are desirable but cannot be vouchsafed by anyone. Politicians are unable to provide safety and certainty, but neither are scientists.” As a second measure, we can take responsibility for our own actions, “aiming to reduce the risks to ourselves and our fellow citizens.” Here, again, we need to accept the uncertainty that what is thought to be risky/responsible behavior is likely to change over time as our knowledge about the pandemic changes. Third, he asks us to “strengthen our communal attempts to address the suffering of those of our fellow citizens who are worst hit by the crisis.”

He concludes that “As a test of followership, the best that COVID-19 can offer us is an opportunity to accept and live with the adversities of life; liberate ourselves from false beliefs in the omnipotence of leadership, scientific and political, in resolving all our troubles; and restore our faith in ourselves as citizens capable of holding our leaders to account, while taking responsibility for our own actions.”

As recent developments show, it seems to be exactly this latter point which is surprisingly difficult to achieve. In expressing their disappointment with leadership unable to provide clear guidance and a quick solution, many people react by blaming leaders, opening up to conspiracy theories, denying the risks posed by the pandemic and turning to irresponsible behavior. Yet, the way forward seems to lie in the ambigous zone between “good” and “evil”: accepting that leaders may be wrong and uncertain themselves, accepting that scientific knowledge is changing, accepting that there is no ultimate truth yet at the same time also behaving in a responsible way on the basis of the best knowledge we have. Being responsible to fellow citizens does not imply being uncritical of the measures taken and of societal developments, it does not imply a blind followership of political leaders – but indeed, this is hard to fit into a “good” vs “evil”, “them” versus “us” scheme as evidenced currently between those that wear masks in certain situations (declared as uncritical and blind followers manipulated by the government) and those that don’t (self-declared as the only critical minds left).

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