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Elizabeth Balgobin: Covid-19 will make or break us, as leaders and as a society

20 Mar 2020 Voices

Elizabeth Balgobin looks at how political and charity leaders compare when it comes to their early response to the coronavirus crisis.

It won’t come as a surprise to most of you that I am not a fan of this government, but it is the one we have. It won’t be a surprise that I am really not a fan of our prime minister.

I first wrote about him in his first few days as Mayor of London (You know when you’ve been BoJo’d, New Start Magazine May 2008). His way of working has always made me suspicious and his interactions with me left me feeling humiliated, dirty, and angry. Yet I know people I respect, professionally and personally, who are not just loyal to him but tell me that I am wrong in my assessment of him.  

This is probably true of all us, especially if you hold a leadership position.

It’s a cliché but we are in truly unprecedented times and we are reliant on this government to lead us safely through to something that will become the new normal. So I have been watching the PM Coronavirus Show every evening, watching and listening to the news reports and spending way too much time on the Twit reading the responses.  

No one could prepare for leadership during a worldwide pandemic. It doesn’t matter how much you have read and written about your leadership hero, in this case Winston Churchill, and believe you are modelling yourself on the best of that person: you can only be you in the situation you are faced with.

We want our leaders to be authentic but we also want to be able to trust that they have the skills, knowledge and experience to lead us. Statesmanlike is not the first description you will reach for to describe the prime minister but I’m going to cut him some slack here as he is learning on the job. He has no choice.

Our prime minister and I share two traits that can make us seem lesser leaders – we smile a lot and our faces give away our inner thoughts. I don’t have the glare and scrutiny of cameras, reporting and the opinion of every person with a social media account to deal with. The language he uses will speak to some and not others. We share a joy for obscure words. Unlike him, I am not likely to talk about us being at war but I know in my bones, and in what I read, some will find that reassuring and others will feel it makes everything much scarier.

It may have been slow coming, to some, but the prime minister has stood up in front of the nation every evening. He has been flanked by experts speaking calmly and with authority, who correct what he says when he gets it wrong, and says that he will continue to speak to us all for as long as it takes. There’s a leadership lesson there for all of us.

Strong response from charity leaders

I have been watching our sector CEOs’ performances too. There has been strong collaboration, clear messages and an acceptance that the picture keeps changing and they will need to adapt to that. They have moved swiftly to press for government to hear that we are part of the fabric of society and need support from government too. Funders, through London Funders, have moved quickly to change their approach to grant-making.

Individuals and companies, like Martin Lewis, and John Lewis Partnership have stepped up to recognise the value of the sector’s work for society. Unlike our government, I have seen gender, race and thought diversity working together.

Just as the government has a long list of needs to prioritise I know that CEOs will be discussing with their trustees how to get the prioritisation right for service delivery, staff and survival. Which of these is most important? If you don’t survive you can’t deliver any services? Which staff do you sacrifice to what feels like inevitable redundancies in order to ensure survival? Which services can you cut without creating inevitable obsolescence?  

I have been in their shoes, not at this unprecedented scale, and know that this work does not start at 9am on Monday and finish at 5pm Friday. Every waking, and sleeping, for some, thought will be working through the permutations.  

I know that they are doing this in glare of the spotlight of staff eyes on them, service users and, in some cases, local, regional, national and sector press. Others will be feeling unseen and lonely, particularly small charities where they may not be as well networked. It’s an odd place to sit between the judgement of your board and the judgement of your staff – it’s not always possible to please both.

We all need to be able to be positively critical and hold people to account but we should do this with empathy (or sympathy, if you can’t muster empathy), and without malice. Just as Gordon Brown was judged as having failed by the electorate in 2010 (but will be viewed better for his actions in 2008-9 as we appreciate the positives) the prime minister, government and our sector leaders will be judged now and over time. Covid-19 will make or break us, as leaders and as a society.  We all have role to play in ensuring our mutual success.

Elizabeth Balgobin is an experienced charity interim manager and trustee. She is also  regular columnist for Governance & Leadership magazine

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