Leadership during a pandemic

It has probably escaped nobody that the world is currently facing some serious turmoil due to the Coronavirus. This chaos brings about big changes, both for organizations and individuals. Many companies have had to let people go and those who have managed to keep their jobs are often forced to work from home. In moments like these, people look to great leaders for guidance. Question is, what’s the appropriate response?

Even though the present situation might feel unique, this isn’t the first time humankind has been threatened by a pandemic. The Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and the Plague of Justinian are just a few we have managed to overcome. But what can we learn from the leaders who lived through these horrible diseases?

The plague with the highest death toll is, of course, the Black Death. During the 14th century, it killed more than 200 million people. The labor force decreased, and in accordance with supply- and demand models, wages rose. King Edward III of England tried to please the landowning class by fixing the wages at pre-plague levels but this didn’t make him very popular in the eyes of the common people. Several uprisings followed causing even more instability. To pretend that the circumstances haven’t changed is therefore not a good leadership policy. A good leader needs to adapt as the environment changes.

Moving on, the Spanish flu tormented the world between the years 1918 and 1920. Over 500 million people were infected and some sources claim that more than 50 million people died. According to historian John M. Barry, the most significant mistake the governments made during this time was to lie about the gravity of the disease. After all, there was a war going on and numerous leaders felt that should be the main focus. However, people quickly realized the truth when their neighbors, coworkers and loved ones died and once they did, their trust was dramatically reduced. A good leader should thus be honest with what’s going on.

The Plague of Justinian is probably the least known pandemic of the three brought up in this article, but with its death toll of 25-100 million people, it’s one of the most deadly pandemics humankind has ever faced. Furthermore, it’s also believed that the Plague of Justinian contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. At its peak, more than 10 000 people were killed daily in Constantinople. So how did Emperor Justinian respond? He demanded not only the taxes he assessed each individual owned the state, but also the amount which their dead neighbors were liable. The lack of compassion shown by Justinian did not sit well with the people. A good leader is empathetic, especially when times are tough.

So to summarize, there are many lessons that can be learned from how former leaders have responded to pandemics like the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and the Plague of Justinian. When there is a worldwide crisis, a good leader needs to be adaptable, honest, and empathetic. Only then can he or she become truly great.

Do you want to become a better leader yourself or perhaps avoid the wrath of millions of farmers?

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