Leadership in the time of plague

The Covid-19 pandemic has concentrated our minds on the question of leadership, across the globe. Donald Trump. Boris Johnson. John Pombe Magufuli. These men are flashpoints for discussion around a leader’s response to a clear and present danger.

South Africa has its own issues here, of course. Our leaders have taken strong action in response to the havoc wrought by the novel coronavirus, and the citizenry has been loud and contradictory in its response. We are an unruly lot, after all.

But none of the leadership challenges confronting the world are new. There have been plagues before, and there will be plagues again. The bigger questions remain: What is good leadership, actually? What is bad leadership? And what of followers?

In a long working life, I have often been a follower, and I have sometimes been a mid-level leader. I have also been someone who worked for myself.

Living through all of that, it’s my observation now that the quality of leaders who people choose is based on the extent to which those people are themselves prepared to shoulder responsibility for the hard work that goes into making those choices.

Short-term thinking

An example: A long time ago, people in a separate division of a company where I worked had seen the back of a hated boss. In the leadership gap that resulted, one of my own bosses was temporarily transferred to the other division, where he wrought miracles. Well, actually, he just had a meeting and asked what they wanted. A coffee machine, they said (among other things), and a coffee machine they got. They all signed a letter asking that his position be made permanent, which it was. A year later they were moaning about how they hated him, how shallow and fickle and treacherous he was. (I and other colleagues could have told them that, had they done the most basic of research and asked us).

I think of this a lot as I follow South African politics, observing how short-term thinking gets us all in a mess, all of the time. Remember how the end of Thabo Mbeki’s reign as president was celebrated? People reviled him for his Aids policy and his stand-offishness. So we got Jacob Zuma instead. Good move, not so? And when he was finally removed as president, we got Cyril Ramaphosa. How’s that working for us, fellow South Africans?

How did we get here?

Paying attention over long periods of time to the detail of how a political party or an organisation works is hard and complicated work, which most people just don’t have the time or the inclination to do. And so, again and again, we fall for charm over hard work, and for style over substance.

In short, we take the coffee machine, and don’t ask the hard questions, or do the research.

Even for those who do all this work, in the end the way in which democracy works is that people will get the leaders for whom the majority have voted. The rules are that the losers take that on the chin, and try to change things the next time an election comes around.

I believe in democracy, and I believe in the rules. But in our day-to-day lives we often have the sense that what we do as individuals doesn’t make a difference. The leaders do what the leaders do, and the rest of us figure there’s not a lot we can do about any of it. It’s taken me decades to get here, but I think there’s a third way, beyond following and leading and the sense of impotence we all have.


Many years ago, I read an article in Time magazine about the Dalai Lama. Something he said leaped out at me so much that I copied it down. And I have tried to live my life according to these words:

“Sometimes I wonder whether my efforts really have any effect; I sometimes feel that unless there is a bigger movement, the bigger issues will not change. But how to start this bigger movement? Originally, it must come from individual initiative. So, for example, whenever I leave a hotel room, I always try to switch off the light. In a way, it’s silly. But if another ten persons follow my example, then 100 persons, there is an effect. From that point of view, I believe that constant effort, tireless effort, pursuing clear goals with sincere effort is the only way. It’s the only way! The bigger nations and more powerful leaders are not taking care. And God is also somewhere asleep, I think.”

For me, this means forgetting any idea that a leader will fix things for me. And if I am somehow involved in choosing a leader, I must apply constant, tireless effort to that process. I am obligated to apply long-term thinking.

In fact, I try to apply long-term thinking to everything that I do.

And I always try to figure out what my part in things is, before blaming other people.

I fail, all the time,of course. But I think if more people tried to live like this, our leadership problems would take care of themselves.

Main picture: Jeyhun Sung, Unsplash

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