Is it possible to lead well, or even to lead at all, when the leadership team and the organisation it leads are not permitted to be physically together?

The challenge to Leadership posed by the coronavirus crisis is this: How is it possible to lead well, or even to lead at all, when the leadership team and the organisation it leads are not permitted to be physically together in shared, three-dimensional space?

The first question to ask is, are there leaders who have become successful by not being in the human presence of those they lead? The short answer is no. From Christ to Churchill, the leaders we think of as truly great have always had a team of other leaders around them. Whilst Christ and Churchill are no longer physically present, their unique leadership qualities are still tangible in their sense of purpose, their moral, values-laden language and their astonishing success – and they are both still attracting new followers.

But without the twelve disciples there would have been no Christianity. Without the War Cabinet there would have been no victory. It is very hard to imagine either Christ or Churchill attracting a significant following had their only media been zoom and social media. Maybe Christ overturning the moneylenders’ tables would have made it to Instagram. Churchill receiving the President of the United States naked from his bath definitely would.

If we assume that in life and business most of our leaders were already in place, then what we can say with certainty is, Covid 19 is the biggest challenge to leadership most of us have ever seen. It will expose the worst leadership, and illuminate the very best. The steady stream of evidence that female leaders of countries are leading their citizens more assuredly and safely than male leaders continues to grow.

Surprising news from Ireland is also showing us how we can lead in a global crisis. Ireland’s coronavirus death rate is half of Britain’s. Rather than following the chaotic exceptionalism of its biggest customer, Ireland closely observed what was happening in Europe and imposed a much stricter lockdown, early on. In addition, on a per-head basis, Ireland has a good claim to be the most diplomatically powerful country in the world, with a seat on the UN security council – to name but one. The two warring political parties Fianna Faíl and Fine Gael are in coalition for the first time, by consent. Ireland is leading by punching well above its weight by doing things rationally and multilaterally.

Leadership by Zoom, so to speak, forces all of us, and especially the leaders who provide goods, services, and direction in public life, to be more rational and multilateral. Only the best leadership will shine through. The worst will be exposed – and good riddance – but, as ever, the space where most leaders are, the middle ground, will be a bed of nails that will be a perpetual discomfort unless they improve – and fast. When the pandemic tide ebbs, it will not only be the worst leaders who will be washed up.

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