After at least four decades of unrelenting emphasis on preparing leaders – we now have the results: a big “F” for a colossal failure. From seminars to conferences, and leadership books to graduate programs, all that we have accomplished, it seems, is to install gutless, morally deficient, and fake leaders at the top.
When the greatest test of a coordinated global leadership arrived, perhaps the only one in the past eighty or so years, the so-called leadership of the entire world collapsed and crumbled. And unlike the World War 2 or the Great Depression, this challenge did not require any complex maneuvering. All it needed were few coordinated steps, and it would have been fine. But, alas!
Remember all the case studies and stories fed to us about leadership? The formula to become great, to lead change, to manage crisis, to learn rules of leadership, to become highly effective, to be a servant leader, blah, blah, blah. Remember the claims of exceptionalism, of protecting human rights, of safeguarding human dignity, of saving the planet, of integrity? As we discovered from our recent crisis – that is all they were: case studies, myths, and stories. When it came down to the real thing, we saw a total meltdown of leadership at all higher levels.
This is not a criticism of any one leader, or one country, or a business, or a political party, or a parliament, or a congress. This is a factual assessment of the upper echelons of the entire humanity.
The tragedy of our time is not that we suffered from this pandemic – but just how ugly, how incompetent, how cruel, how selfish, our conduct has been as a civilization.
Just as the first signs of Covid19 appeared, we observe a complete state of denial. Except for perhaps a couple of countries, the rest of the world could not put two simple facts together: it is transmitting human-to-human and it has no cure.
One can agonize over just how reckless we all must be to miss that – but it is not that we missed it. The real issue, in my opinion, was that we lacked empathy to see “their” problem as “our” problem. Look at the news stories that came out during the early Covid19 period (and I have analyzed them). We saw Covid19 through the social and political lens. What should have been a story of science and biology and humanity somehow got blended with factors such as the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi, the Chinese culture, the Chinese people and so on. Remember our fascination with the Chinese constructing a 1000-bed hospital in 10 days? While we marveled their engineering, agility, and capabilities – we could not see the underlying reason why it was being done.
We felt safe and detached, as if Wuhan was situated on some distant planet. We saw it melting away, but we were unable to channel our thought process through the lens of humanity. Our prejudices – I believe – held us back to see what it really was: an emerging crisis for the entire world. Somehow, it was “their” and not “our” problem.
Perhaps our collective consciousness has become so trapped in memes, tweets, and 2-minute videos that we have lost our ability to make simple observations. Perhaps we have become such a prisoner of our digitized, social media governed world, dominated by behavior manipulation business models, that we have lost our ability to think clearly and respond to facts. With 30-second clips designed to extract reaction, sensationalized content, screaming influencers, and “likes-and-retweets” mindset – we seem to be more concerned about our content becoming viral vs. a real virus going viral.
As the disease spread from China to other countries and the human tragedy unfolded in Iran, the stories became about the Iranian politics and government, sanctions, and the nuclear treaty. When the disease entered Italy and Spain – while a bit more relatable – it still seemed like a distant reality. The narrative of a ruthless virus going after the older Europeans, who smoked a lot, and do not have an advanced healthcare system kept the problem afar – our prejudices rationalized things for us.
As the pandemic spread in the United States, we observed a tsunami of political rivalry and ugliness. CEOs of prominent tech companies promised apps to help fight Covid19 – as we were told that over 700 people were working on those apps. Well, so much for those apps as nothing came out and if it did, it did not work. In a pow wow of CEOs and the US administration, we saw handshakes and elbow bumps, and were told that within days the parking lots of large department stores and pharmacies will have Covid19 testing facilities. But even after months, it was still not there.
Our supply chains crumbled. With first signs of trouble, we were out of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and masks. Our healthcare workers were asked to reuse masks, even bandannas. We were out of hospital beds and ventilators, medicines and masks, cleaning supplies and food. Dead bodies piled up in trailers outside hospitals as death toll turned from hundreds to thousands and then tens of thousands.
Our character was on display as we saw people snatching supplies from each other, and countries fighting over masks and ventilators. We observed utter disregard for others as people hoarded and filled their basements with months, even years, of supplies – and companies allowed that to happen. Shocked and dumbfounded, few (if any) companies were prepared for such an event. Inventories dried out. Machines stopped churning. Warehouses and distribution centers emptied.
In times when the entire humanity should have come together – populations within many countries stood more divided than ever. We saw hate filled outrage and street fights, looting and mass discontent.
But prejudices did not just stop at an international level. The disease quickly took a racial and political tone in America. With complete disregard for others, many organized Covid19 parties. The valor and sacrifice of the previous generations (for example during the WW2 and Vietnam) was a thing of the past. This time around young people found one summer without partying as too-much-to-give-up and unbearable, and were willing to risk their own lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents for an hour of entertainment. Our politicians turned the crises into red and blue virus. Our media outlets quickly took sides. As death toll mounted – we became even more entrenched, more selfish, and frankly more stupid.
Our agencies told us that wearing masks is not important. Then they told us to wear masks. Even wearing of masks turned into political symbolism. Instead of viewing it as a common courtesy – even if we thought it was ineffective – it became a matter of personal honor, freedom, and political expression.
The economic stimulus became another battleground of its own. How much? For whom? How to allocate? How to get it to the people who need it most? Answering these questions should not have been as complicated as it became. As political rivalries intensified, foreign adversaries and state actors, as well as domestic special interests, set the narratives for even more conflict. The most vulnerable times for mankind became the hunting grounds for exploiting peace, starting social conflicts, making people hate each other, and turning countries into ideological battlegrounds.
When it came to developing a vaccine, the matters became even worse. Instead of sharing data and information, algorithms, science, and technology, we quickly divided the world into a clash of vaccines. The Oxford vaccine vs the Russian vaccine. The Chinese vaccine vs. the American vaccine. Within the pharmaceutical industry – pharma giants rushed to develop their own versions – instead of sharing information to solve the common problem. Smelling mega profits, billionaires launched their own little side projects to develop vaccines. Accusations of hacking into each other’s data were thrown around. Countries blamed each other for starting and spreading the virus. Countries taunted each other’s vaccines, instead of feeling relieved that a vaccine exists. And WHO lost its funding from a major donor, which arguably depleted its ability to function constructively.
What we observed in the last seven months is a world without any leadership. What we saw is the degeneration of leadership in human society and that must serve as an example of who we are or what we have become.
While we can relate to our experience, the reality was not that different in dozens of other countries. The same saga unfolded all over the world. Also, this was not the failure of one man or woman, or even one administration. It was a failure of the entire human society to learn how to solve our greatest challenges together. We should all be extremely concerned about what lies ahead – as we face the new collective challenges of climate change, artificial intelligence, and new geopolitical rivalries.
THE MAIN LESSONS
As Covid19 provided us a mirror to see our true face and uncovered our collective reality – certain fallacies and myths were exposed. We discovered that we overestimated in certain things – and underestimated in others. Here is a breakdown:
Overestimate our leadership abilities: Covid19 is a humbling reminder that our leadership trainings, business education, and books did not prepare us for true leadership. True leadership demands putting people first – not “our people” and “their people”, but people as humans – and we failed to do that. In a world that seems so bent on deglobalization, this is probably the last chance we would get to come together in a meaningful way to address and confront our common problems. As history from the previous century teaches us, when we all go our own ways, sooner or later we all run into each other – but it happens with bombs and militaries and not with pens and emissaries. There is an urgent need to deescalate global tensions, reduce fear, restart global cooperation, and focus on our common problems.
Overestimate our risk management abilities: Covid19 is also a stark reminder that how bad we are at risk identification and mitigation. We failed to see it coming and were least prepared when it came. As Covid19 showed us, anytime something out of the ordinary happens, regardless of how trivial it is to handle, we show complete incoherence. We tend to experience a total meltdown. Like a trapped animal, we become anxious and go in a state of panic. With all this technology and billions spent on risk management infrastructures, we should have done better.
Overestimation of “empathy”: Despite our processing power and data and algorithms, we failed to understand a simple relationship “human-to-human contact + no vaccine = deadly virus”. The virus does not know national borders or race or ethnicities or religions – but our biased minds do. We overestimated how much we know about each other. Knowing the names of foreign foods and visiting their landmarks is not empathy. A human bond must exist between various civilizations.
Underestimate the impact of the behavior modification technology: In an influencer dominated social media culture, I will go out on a limb to share that sometimes I feel like we are in some real life Black Mirror (Netflix) show. With little attention spans and overactive fingers sliding on phone screens going from one video to another, we have lost the ability to think deeply, to truly understand each other, to develop human empathy. We believe that our technologies have brought us together, but they have also turned us into vicious animals desperately hunting for “likes”. If there is so much of “me” in the equation, how can there be others in the same space. In other words, I believe we have given birth to a new type of digital insensitivity and narcissism.
What does this mean for the ESG industry? This means ESG should consider this failure of leadership as a validation that ESG matters. This means that authentic and true ESG is necessary to drive change. This means ESG is our best hope. We have received yet another proof that a world without governance and ethics, without social consciousness and responsibility, without addressing our common problems in a responsible way, is a world doomed to fail.
THE REAL HEROES AND TRUE LEADERS
In the middle of this crisis – a crisis worsened by the lack of leadership – there lies a remarkable story of millions of people demonstrating true leadership. These are the stories of courage and sacrifice, but all have the same common theme: for others. These are the stories of doctors and nurses, teachers and frontline workers, police and firemen/firewomen, garbage collectors and taxi drivers, meat plant workers and delivery people, pharmacists and store clerks. They demonstrated leadership when their leaders with C-suite titles failed. They gave hope when presidents and prime ministers, congresses and parliaments, cabinets and ministers failed to do the most basic job of inspiring us. The common person prevailed and rose to the occasion.
The post-Covid19 era must belong to these workers. They deserve more than a shout-out or a spot on the cover of Time magazine. They deserve better leaders.
This is the first in a series of articles authored by Professor Naqvi on ESG and Artificial Intelligence.