The ability to help individuals to frame and achieve their goals (that thing called leadership) is perhaps the most paramount factor making the difference in times of crisis. Great leaders are forged during trying times: when a country’s population needs to solve challenges beyond their personal capacities amid circumstances transcending their control. The most effective leaders in history are those who build collective solidarity in order to solve a problem. That is how the fame of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill grew to attain superhuman proportions: his accident-prone history would not allow anyone to imagine that he would be the great leader that his country, and the free world, would see as a light on the horizon even during the darkest hours.
Churchill was the right person at a crucial juncture, but not the only one. During the last ninety days, we have seen that German Chancellor Angela Merkel (whom many perceived to be at the waning phase of her influence) not only regained massive support in her country, but also became the symbol of vigor, clarity of mind and reasonableness. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, did likewise, as did her equivalent in Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. What distinguished them was that they never confused their role nor entertained secondary agendas: they devoted themselves to what pertained to them and nothing more. Their success, and the recognition that they achieved in their nations attest this fact. The case of South Korea is emblematic: President Moon Jae-in was facing a decline in approval but, halfway through the pandemic, he achieved a supermajority in Parliament due to the leadership that he exercised.
There are not many examples of such extraordinary accomplishment, but cases of failure are evident: those leaders who dedicated their energies to seek culprits instead of finding solutions. In situations of crisis, when the population calls for certainty and clarity of course, leaders may advance towards a prompt resolution, hindering permanent and inevitable decadence. At the collapse of apartheid, South Africa could have moved forward in different directions, beginning with a slaughter of white people. If instead of Nelson Mandela the successor of F.W. de Klerk would have been any of the others that followed the country’s first black president the nation would have ended up in a violent twilight. Mandela was the one who made a peaceful and successful transition, the right leader at the right moment.
It is impossible to minimize the magnitude of the current crisis amplified even more because it combines the risk of coronavirus contagion -along with the fears and concerns accompanying it- with the sudden collapse of economic activity due to use of lockdown orders as the strategy to fight he virus. In the U.S. they were able to turn the crisis into new grounds for political dispute. Rather than responding to the crisis the U.S. federal government persisted in its agenda of polarization, prolonging and rendering the suffering more acute. Crises call for adequate action for specific circumstances. As the cases of Sweden and Germany demonstrate, there is not one single response because each nation has its own particular characteristics, but all countries need of a clear-cut and convincing line of action that transcends the everyday political tussle. And even more so, in that this concerns divided societies, what is required is an efficient government and one entertaining a long-term vision to confront obstacles without precedent. The key point is for government to win over the people’s trust by demonstrating it knows what it is doing and that by doing that achieves to garner social solidarity. Some governments were able to do this; others were left wanting.
A recent survey found that “too many people in too many countries do not trust their national leaders to act in their national interest or, at the extreme, even to hold fair elections.” The same survey displayed an enormous approval of scientists (90%), followed by military leaders and entrepreneurs. The reason for this lack of trust comes down to corruption or weakness of governments and politicians. These factors are accentuated the younger the age of those who were surveyed.
Moments of crisis are perfect for comparing the manner in which different societies and persons respond to the same challenge: this is when countries reveal their intrinsic institutional solidity to deal with challenges presenting to them. This, independently of the quality of those countries leaders and of the leaders that emerge both in strong or weak countries. This is illustrated well by the current German Chancellor behaving similarly to Mandela: both successful under critical circumstances. Margaret MacMillan, author of some of the most transcending books on the 20th century, has said that “history shows, those societies that survive and adapt best to catastrophes are already strong”. She exemplifies this by contrasting the U.K. and France in the face of the Nazi lashing during World War II.
The lesson is obvious: only countries with solid institutions surface unscathed from crises. This is also achieved by countries with the right leadership in place when circumstances demand it. When both of these are absent, the future becomes bleak. It is key for leadership to stand up and unite the people.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof