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An Abysmal Failure of Leadership

Summary:
During times of crisis, the most effective leaders are those who can build solidarity by educating the public about its own interests. Sadly, in the case of COVID-19, the leaders of the world's two largest economies have gone in the opposite direction, all but ensuring that the crisis will deepen. CAMBRIDGE – Leadership – the ability to help people frame and achieve their goals – is absolutely crucial during a crisis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demonstrated this in 1940, as did Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s transition from apartheid. How Will the Great Cessation End? PS OnPoint Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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During times of crisis, the most effective leaders are those who can build solidarity by educating the public about its own interests. Sadly, in the case of COVID-19, the leaders of the world's two largest economies have gone in the opposite direction, all but ensuring that the crisis will deepen.

CAMBRIDGE – Leadership – the ability to help people frame and achieve their goals – is absolutely crucial during a crisis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demonstrated this in 1940, as did Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s transition from apartheid.

By these historical standards, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies have failed abysmally. US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, both initially reacted to the coronavirus outbreak not by informing and educating their publics, but by denying the problem, thereby costing lives. They then both redirected their energies toward assigning blame rather than finding solutions. Owing to their failures, the world may have missed the window for responding to the crisis with a “Sputnik moment” or a “COVID Marshall Plan.”

Leadership theorists make a distinction between “transformational” and “transactional” leaders. The latter try to steer through situations with business as usual, whereas the former try to reshape the situations in which they find themselves.

Of course, transformational leaders do not always succeed. Former US President George W. Bush tried to remake the Middle East by invading Iraq, with disastrous consequences. By contrast, his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had a more transactional style; but he also had the skills to manage the fluid situation that the world found itself in after the collapse of communism in Europe. The Cold War ended, Germany was reunited and anchored firmly to the West, and not a shot was fired.

Whatever their style, leaders can exert strong influence on group identity – the force that turns “me” and “you” into “us.” Lazy leaders tend to reinforce the status quo, by tapping into existing divisions to mobilize support for themselves, as Trump has done. But effective transformational leaders can have a far-reaching impact on a society’s moral character. Mandela, for example, easily could have defined his base as black South Africans, and then sought revenge for decades of injustice. Instead, he worked tirelessly to broaden the identity of his followers.

Similarly, after World War II – in which Germany had invaded France for the third time in 70 years – the...

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