There is no playbook for managing during a pandemic. It is hard to develop a strategy when the circumstances continue to change. No leader has found the last year easy. Nevertheless, some countries and businesses have performed better than others.
For our winter 2021 magazine edition, we assembled a panel of experts to give their assessment of the government’s coronavirus response. When applying a corporate lens to Boris and co’s strategy, they were almost unanimous in their assessment that the government had failed to live up to expectations.
Here our second panel of experts spanning business, academia, executive coaching, journalism and corporate lobbying offer their takes.
RENE CARAYOL – EXECUTIVE COACH TO WORLD LEADERS AND FORTUNE 500 EXECUTIVES
When Rome is burning, you want to know that Caesar is there, but Johnson missed key briefings early on in the pandemic. A CEO would have been kicked out for that. Leaders should not micromanage day-to-day decision-making, but if the whole business is at risk, what could be more important than being in the room?
Johnson wasn’t chosen because of his ability to command details or to be strategic, but his ability to rally people around him. It was therefore incumbent on him to build a team of strategic executors. This was not the time for learning on the job. There was no reason why former cabinet ministers with experience couldn’t have been brought back into the fold. Instead he chose a bunch of loyalists because of their views on Brexit.
That might mean there’s more alignment and you’ll make decisions quicker, but the problem with homogenous teams is that you cannot hear a dissenting voice that tells you to press the brakes.
You can tell the quality of an executive team by the number of U-turns it makes, and there has been one seemingly every couple of weeks. The government’s been guided by the science at times but ignored it when it suited them. It is clear Johnson is not enjoying this – he is human, with the same frailties and flaws as the rest of us. The best leaders know when it is time to go. How long does it go on for?
LORD DIGBY JONES – FORMER DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF THE CBI AND MINISTER OF STATE FOR UK TRADE AND INVESTMENT
There are few politicians, and even fewer civil servants, who have any real understanding of the wealth-creating, risk-taking aspect of business, so it’s very difficult to compare how a business would do things differently, but there are parallels around leadership and communication.
A business would have had Boris as CEO more front and centre than he has been; a business would have been more decisive, stuck to its guns more and been more communicative about why it was doing so.
The best example is the five days of Christmas, where social distancing restrictions were to be eased. It was communicated nearly a month beforehand, but it became perfectly clear that every bit of scientific advice was against it. A good business wouldn’t have communicated that decision so early, and would therefore have given itself the flexibility to change its mind.
So it is not that the government hasn’t communicated, it has just communicated badly. And when leadership teams do that, it comes down to the quality of the decision-making process.
SIR JOHN TUSA – VETERAN BBC JOURNALIST, BOARD DIRECTOR AND AUTHOR OF ON BOARD
You can’t get a better example of real dysfunction in government policy than the second lockdown and the tier system. It was a combination of strategic failure, operational uncertainty and negligence.
We left lockdown two on 2 December, and at some stage the government must have thought “what the hell do we do now?” Because they swore blind they would not continue the lockdown. Their solution was to sprinkle the tiers on an inconsistent basis. Yet the prime minister couldn’t put the policy into action.
The government panicked – and had every reason to – but they’ve not been able to think outside of the panic. They’ve pulled in all directions and didn’t pick their quarrels – Andy Burnham is eminently quarralable with, but you have better things to do in the middle of a national crisis than pick a fight over £65m.
The corporate model is absolutely clear: a chairman and his or her executive board would not have survived this long. Once it was clear that the existing team didn’t have a grip on what was happening, then there should have been changes.
RACHEL BOTSMAN – TRUST FELLOW, OXFORD UNIVERSITY’S SAID BUSINESS SCHOOL AND THINKERS50 AUTHOR
In any organisation, when there is a crisis the Flag Effect occurs. It’s a very natural response where people look up to a leader they believe is in control. Leaders take this one of two ways – either they gain false confidence from the support, believing that their strategy is working, or like we have seen in New Zealand and Germany they recognise that the trust placed in them is extremely fragile.
Perhaps this speaks to [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel’s background as a scientist, but when she doesn’t know something she will say so and that she will find out. There hasn’t been that humility here in the UK.
Trust does not come from big press announcements with grand gestures and promises, it comes from consistency, which is tied to expectations. You have to outline very clearly what you expect from people and what they can expect from you.
Even inconsistency about who is delivering the press conference, the format it’s in, the three-word message that’s on the podium and who gets to ask questions can have a huge impact. When you’re seeing the same visuals and using the same metrics every day, people know where they stand.
It sets the expectations and that’s where the government has failed. Dominic Cummings’s press conference after his trip to Barnard Castle was the point of freefall in the British public’s trust and confidence in the government to handle the crisis.
It was almost irrelevant that it wasn’t Johnson himself because it sent out the signal that they get to play by different rules. Cummings needed to go and Johnson needed to apologise because it happened on his watch. When any leader associates themselves with people whom stakeholders perceive as lacking integrity, that’s an irreparable trust problem.
In a crisis, your customers or your citizens fundamentally have to believe that your intentions are aligned with their best interests. Johnson isn’t necessarily the problem – there are some people who still see character strengths there, who see him as warm, empathetic and charismatic.
When it comes to trust it is the advisors, systems and structures around him that need to radically transform. You could put another leader in there and have exactly the same problem.
DALE VINCE – FOUNDER, ECOTRICITY; CHAIRMAN, FOREST GREEN ROVERS FC; CLIMATE CAMPAIGNER
The executive team was clearly hoping for things to get better sooner. They’ve shown a lack of courage and shied away from making bold decisions that would be potentially unpopular. We were late into the first lockdown, despite evidence from the rest of the world; we were late into the second as well, despite evidence from our own experience and the medical and scientific advice.
You want to be able to say after the event that you did more than you needed to – so now we can get back to normal quicker – rather than what we’ve had, which is to say we did less than was needed and were overtaken by events.
The government is finding decisions too difficult to take. We’ve not saved either the economy or lives, which is a perfectly bad outcome.
When it comes to strategy and U-turns, you’ve got to look at the nature of original decisions. The extensions of the furlough scheme were based on the evidence that was in front of them. They deserve credit for finally getting there, but took two or three bites at it.
On the other hand, initially refusing to pay for free school meals was a shocking political miscalculation, but then they made the same mistake twice. They said they weren’t going to extend free school meals and then had to make a U-turn again on the same issue.
It suggests a fundamental failure to be honest and to own mistakes. To be able to say, for example, that we thought herd immunity was the right strategy at the beginning, but then when it didn’t work we went for lockdown. But instead we have a government that denies responsibility for mistakes.
Companies that continually make the wrong decisions, bury their heads in the sand and refuse to accept reality go out of business. A government can be in denial of the facts. We’re all shareholders and some people have already lost everything. That’s a big difference between decision-making in government and business.
Image credit: Jonathan Brady/AFP via Getty images