"The pandemic has laid bare the dismal failure of some leaders to truly lead, with devastating results on their people."
The theologian, philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer said the three most important ways to lead people are “by example… by example… by example.”
By this measure, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the dismal failure of some leaders to truly lead, with devastating results on their people.
In the universe of bad examples, the supernovas are US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsinaro.
As the death toll from COVID-19 barrels toward 100,000 and the number of infections shoots up to 1.6 million in his country, Trump continues to push for American states to remove quarantine restrictions and reopen their economies. He flouts the advice of health experts in his own administration, and touts unproven and even dangerous drugs as a prophylactic.
In Brazil, Bolsinaro, who dismissed the novel coronavirus as “a little flu,” wades into crowds of his idiotic supporters, unprotected by even a face mask or physical distancing, while his country is ravaged by COVID-19. Brazil now has the second most infections worldwide after the United States, with 363,000 confirmed cases and 22,666 deaths. While the bodies pile up and Brazil’s hospitals groan under the strain of the rising COVID-19 infections, Bolsinaro continues to join anti-lockdown rallies, doing push-ups in one event to demonstrate his state of health.
Both Trump and Bolsinaro—and their supporters—are clearly no longer in control of their mental health.
There are lesser constellations, of course, in this universe of failure to lead by example.
Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen has apologized after he broke a coronavirus-related curfew by staying in a Vienna restaurant beyond the closing time mandated under his country’s lockdown measures. “I’m sincerely sorry. It was a mistake,” the 76-year-old politician said.
Far less apologetic was Dominic Cummings, the senior adviser of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has been accused of violating lockdown rules by traveling 400 kilometers to northern England while his wife showed COVID-19 symptoms. In a pattern that we have seen here, Johnson defended his subordinate and refused calls for him to resign—or at least accept responsibility for his poor judgment.
This need to stand by his own people despite proof of their wrongdoing does nothing to bolster the British prime minister’s credibility.
In the same manner, President Rodrigo Duterte’s refusal to hold Metro Manila police chief Debold Sinas responsible for attending a birthday celebration in clear violation of lockdown rules here earlier this month, does him no favors. And his statement that “the law is the law” and that he would take responsibility for Sinas’ indiscretion does nothing to improve the credibility of the Philippine National Police, which is now seen as a violator of the very rules it is supposed to enforce.
Mr. Duterte said he would not fire a police officer simply because his men sang Happy Birthday to him, but we all know there was more to the “breakfast serenade” than that. A truly responsible police official would have immediately thanked his men for organizing a party, then firmly shut it down in respect of lockdown regulations. That’s how a true leader would behave.
As the former speaker of the US House Sam Rayburn said: "You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too."