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Leadership in a multipolar world: why COVID-19 has demonstrated the need to rethink global and national leadership infrastructure

G7 Build Back Better Together
Profesor 'Funmi Olonisakin and Linganaden Murday

09 June 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep flaws of the existing leadership infrastructure at both national and global levels. Sadly, and more tellingly, the 166.2 million cases and 3.4 million deaths so far, are egregious reminders that these flaws have deadly consequences that surpass many conventional wars. The failure of national and global governance arrangements to collectively achieve societal mobilisation across borders to halt the spread of the virus makes a strong case for a rethinking of the leadership infrastructure. In this essay, we point out that as much as the hardware, the software aspect of leadership needs serious consideration to ensure that leadership is available to prevent future pandemics.

The response to the pandemic has severely disrupted established claims that certain political systems and states – democracies and economically advanced countries – are better than others at managing crises. Although not referring to health crises specifically, the Human Development Report 2002, for example, emphasised that ‘democracies are better at avoiding catastrophes and at managing sudden downturns that threaten human survival’ (UNDP 2002, p.57). The COVID-19 crisis casts doubts on this assumption owing to the mixed results achieved by both democratic and non-democratic countries. Many democracies including the US failed to prevent the spread of the disease while others like New Zealand, Ghana and Germany (in the early stages of the pandemic) were more successful. In the US, Trump’s exercise of power was marked by misinformation and a failure to listen to the scientific community. By contrast, in New Zealand, apart from measures like quarantining and lockdowns, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern engaged the scientific community in crafting measures to curb the spread of the virus. The same mixed result is noted with non-democratic countries. China successfully dealt with the pandemic while others like Iran are still struggling to cope with it. One of the key factors in explaining Chinese success is its swift response to tackle the spread of the virus facilitated by a centralised leadership infrastructure dedicated to responding to epidemics.

We have also seen how at the pinnacle of global governance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) were rendered ineffective in the face of the pandemic without decision-making and mobilising capacity. The UNSC was inactive amid US-China trade war, and UNGA was unable to muster something akin to a ‘uniting for peace’ resolution. With few exceptions (eg European Union) members of regional and inter-governmental entities retreated into state boundaries to fight the virus. Yet, it is increasingly clear that wealthy nations that hope to vaccinate their way out of the pandemic cannot claim full immunity if the rest of the world remains vulnerable and unvaccinated.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) tried but failed to provide effective leadership in responding to the pandemic. On the hardware side of the question, the WHO is already equipped with an International Health Regulation (adopted in 2005) which supplies it with the legitimate power to decide when a situation constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)). However, that tool was not properly used during the COVID-19 crisis owing to the way that power was exercised. For instance, the WHO delayed the classification of COVID-19 situation as a PHEIC until the end of January 2020 which even then barely had any mobilising effect. In the face of inaction from states, it was only on 11th March 2020 that it reframed the health crisis using the more familiar and fear-inducing terms- ‘global pandemic’.

These mixed results at the national level and the gaps at the global level strengthen the argument that it is leadership (the way that power is exercised) that makes the difference rather than the political system (hardware) per se. An Independent Panel set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to study the lessons that should be taken from responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is instructive; it underlines that ‘[l] eadership and competence have counted more than cash in pandemic responses’(The Independent Panel 2021, p.11). More than a year before that panel report and amid the COVID-19 turmoil in 2020, the African Leadership Centre (ALC) made a similar claim: ‘[u]ltimately, leadership is the striking difference between societies that have responded effectively to outbreak of COVID-19 and those that have been less effective. It is not centrally about the wealth or poverty of the societies or their demographics’. As a recommendation, the WHO Panel calls for ‘[s]tronger leadership and better coordination at national, regional and international level, including a more focused and independent WHO…’ (The Independent Panel). But what does strong or effective leadership really mean?

Leadership infrastructure has two key components, namely, the hardware and the software. The hardware is the tangible aspect of the infrastructure which can include buildings, laws that confer power to institutions and staff. It symbolises the existence of those institutions. While these symbols can exercise powerful influence because they project an image of power and possibly sophistication, it is the way that they exercise power conferred to them that determines their continued relevance. This is the software element of leadership which is perhaps more important than the hardware. It includes the way that power is organised and exercised as well as the kind of relationships that it builds with the broader society over time. Outside the formal realm, that software is also the shared expectations and interests that form across society at all levels. Uncovering the nature of the software of the leadership infrastructure requires an understanding of the leadership process. A process-based approach to leadership focuses on how leaders and the communities they serve exchange influence within a given context. That interaction is the lifeblood of leadership. This brief conceptual goggle provides us with the necessary tool to understand the failure of the existing leadership infrastructure and by the same token, the way forward.

At the national level, states that successfully mobilised their societies whether democratic or autocratic have a strong leadership infrastructure in common. Typically, the leadership hardware demonstrates strong institutional capacity and the software is underpinned by a relationship of trust between leaders and society and across society, with evident trust in science and experts. Sometimes, relationships underpinned by certain shared expectations and interests are formed outside of the formally organised systems, which bind large segments of society and order their worldviews. The international collaboration by experts, which made the development of vaccines possible in record time is one example. We have also seen transnational organising by non-state individuals and groups in the digital space, by corporations and digital communities alike. It is important to understand the factors of their success and take them into account in rebuilding a more viable leadership infrastructure. How leaders and institutions engage with these spaces, and the corresponding leadership processes outside of the formal structures for a collective response to crises matters a great deal.

Indeed, the importance of engaging communities has been recognised as key for successful response to the pandemic but there are unfortunately few opportunities for them to participate in decision making (The Independent Panel). Failure to bring these voices to bear more systematically in the national and global institutional dynamics might cement alternative power centres and infrastructures in which aspirations of transnational citizen movements are more aligned with corporations making extensive use of the digital space with consequences that are both positive and negative.

Rebuilding back requires not just new institutions and giving more powers to existing ones, we should rethink how that power is exercised. Concurrently, this inevitably involves an expansion of the idea of leadership beyond the dominant and unnecessarily restrictive position-based understanding. A rethink must accommodate multiple actors and leaders who can mobilise society to face and respond to problems like pandemics and climate change. Significantly, it also means including spheres of influence that were previously locked outside of formal global institutional frameworks.

This raises important questions for how the global leadership infrastructure is organised going forward. Can the UNSC, WHO and UNGA reorganise and unite for effective response to future crises? Is it possible to create tangible connections between institutional hardware and software that embeds relationships seamlessly across societies? In this regard, can the UNSC envisage non-state membership that includes those that serve as the voice of conscience as well as those who facilitate transnational connections? Whatever the answers are to these questions, a rethink of global governance institutions is inevitable, or they will be rendered irrelevant to 21st Century challenges if new transnational actors successfully create an alternative leadership infrastructure.

Read the whole report

About the authors

Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin is Vice President & Vice Principal (International)Professor of Security, Leadership & Development, King’s College London.

Linganaden Murday is Visiting Researcher, African Leadership Centre andlecturer, University of Mauritius

In this story

'Funmi  Olonisakin

'Funmi Olonisakin

Vice President (International, Engagement & Service)

Linganaden  Murday

Linganaden Murday

Research Aide to Mr El Ghassim Wane

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