OPINION: How Covid-19 has exposed the characters and communication skills of some world leaders

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US President Donald Trump.
US President Donald Trump.
Tom Brenner, Getty Images

Communicating effectively during a crisis, let alone a worldwide one, is never easy, but it is essential. Regardless of the crisis, calm, bold, honest and decisive communication is what all nations and communities desire, writes Rich Mkhondo. 


Nothing reinforces and reveals the character and communication skills of a leader more than a crisis and leading people through change. 

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has exposed the differences between leaders who are disciplined in the way they communicate, and those who are driven by ego and what’s good for them and their cronies, as opposed to what’s best for the people they serve. 

The pandemic is also exposing us to leaders who are in love with the microphone and the sound of their own voices and those who only speak publicly when they have thought through exactly what they want to say and why they want to say. 

The pandemic is testing the communication style of every leader to the core. 

The world has never been quite as small  

Things, issues and news move fast these days.

Viruses become pandemics in weeks, if not days, while medical challenges become life-and-death emergencies in a matter of a few hours.

Once proud and secure and prosperous nations, some of whom were building walls to keep away immigrants or implementing Brexit, are now precariously vulnerable. The reality, of course, is that the world is different - it has never been quite as small. 

As we fear death and crave security, we search for leaders who fend off one with the other. One after the other world leaders have sought security by imposing strict conditions for economic and social activity. 

The pandemic which is affecting all corners of the world, is on one hand exposing us to leaders who are calm, reassuring, knowledgeable and trustworthy and equally those who are incapable of putting their monumental egos aside for the common good. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the communication traits of our President Cyril Ramaphosa, United States President Donald Trump,  British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

So what makes these leaders so starkly different in the way they are leading their nations? 

For years I have followed American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. 

The two academics’ cite “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy” as the three key traits which separate how good and bad leaders are when communicating during a crisis and leading their nations through change. 

For example, Ardern and Ramaphosa’s “direction-giving” has been spot on. The two have directed South Africans and New Zealanders to stay at home and save lives, offering us meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do.  

Ramaphosa   

President Ramaphosa has been bold, assertive, courageous and decisive during these desperate times. 

“South Africa has demonstrated bold and decisive leadership through its strategies to intensify the public health response to Covid-19, develop a comprehensive package of economic support measures to assist businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic, and develop a programme of increased social support to protect poor and vulnerable households.” said Nardos Bekele-Thomas, the head of the UN in South Africa and Resident Coordinator. 

Great leaders surround themselves with strong team members who are not afraid to face challenges. 

President Ramaphosa’s bold and assertive leadership is being supported ably by Drs Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and cabinet colleagues to make our country one of the most transparent nations battling with Covid-19. 

Ardern

The 38-year-old prime minister has regulated her nation’s distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making. In freely acknowledging the challenges her nation faced in staying home, Ardern has showed empathy and a quiet, strong leadership. 

Ardern is empathetic. Her messages are clear, consistent, and sobering and soothing. 

I followed her Facebook live chats for a few days. While they are informal, they are informative and are not only motherly and leading by example, but clear consistent, sobering and soothing.

For many she is an example of a compassionate leader in a time of crisis and understand what it means to be human.  She has unified her nation, while also maintaining an integrity and inner-strength that any leader should aspire to. 

“There is no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand. We have won that battle. But we must remain vigilant if we are to keep it that way,” she said in a television address when lifting the level-4 lockdown which has been in place for more than four weeks. 

Boris

In contrast, Johnson has often used pre-recorded messages, offering no chance for questions from the media, almost framing the situation as an “instruction” from government. 

While he has been calm, he has sometimes looked uncertain and hesitant, while conveying even the simplest messages. He has often displayed defiance and overconfidence with his strong emphasis on enforcement measures.  

Trump

Trump is sad to watch.

His daily media briefings are a spectacle if not a circus. Even in the midst of the worst epidemic in a century, Trump has looked incapable of putting his monumental ego aside for the common good. He has feuded with journos, governors, scientists and called political opponents “snakes”. 

Instead of showing empathy, he has displayed vacillating callous and self-centered behaviour. 

His unorthodox suggestions about using disinfectant or sunlight to treat the coronavirus left his aides aghast and has been met with worldwide disbelief, even though he has backtracked, saying he was just being sarcastic. 

For me, great leaders should not only be calm and bold, but thick-skinned as well. When he was asked if he had a message for “Americans who are scared,” President Trump lambasted the journalist as a “terrible reporter” who asked “a very nasty question”. 

No wonder Presidential candidate, Joe Biden has retorted: "This is not personal. It has nothing to do with you, Donald Trump. Nothing to do with you. Do your job, stop personalising everything." 

As the Covid-19 crisis creates greater intersection across cultures, time zones, races, and nations, each of us is increasingly being forced to look for answers, to connect through communication messages which can be powerful tools or an obstacle to success.  

As we battle the pandemic, the world is defined by access to information and messaging and the ability to share and make sense of it. How to harness, distribute the messages distinguishes today's true leaders from the rest of the pack. 

Courageous leadership

While it is true that many presidents and business executives inspire employees through their words and actions, we can all take simple steps to show others a calm sense of confidence that is essential to courageous leadership.  

Communicating effectively during a crisis, let alone a worldwide one, is never easy, but it is essential.  

Regardless of the crisis, calm, bold, honest and decisive communication is what all nations and communities desire. 

The ability to demonstrate these qualities will always separate true leaders from the rest of the pack.  

- Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm (www.mediaandwritersfirm.com), a content development and reputation management hub 

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