The Covid-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to think about a key aspect of leadership: how much can and should leaders rely on the input of experts to make decisions, and how much latitude should they retain for themselves to decide from a generalist perspective?
To a striking degree, this crisis has featured calls for political, business, and other institutional leaders to “follow the science” by deferring to experts in relevant domains, prominently including virologists, epidemiologists, and medical councils. Many decisions, too, have been predicated on modeling by data scientists extrapolating from data to forecast levels of contagion, resource use, and mortality under different scenarios. In the face of a global threat to lives and livelihoods, no one is interested in arbitrary or ideology-driven decision-making.
Yet, opposing perspectives have emerged within this broad consensus – along with a growing appreciation that the relevant science is still rapidly evolving. With different camps touting incompatible solutions, some experts have seemed too ready to cast those with competing ideas as politically motivated. Citizens around the world, having been told that the science shows one thing only to be told subsequently that the opposite is irrefutably proven, grow confused, cynical, and noncompliant. Some worry that most experts have earned their sterling reputations by doing narrowly focused work within sub disciplines of their fields, and their voices are not being sufficiently balanced by other valuable perspectives. Some, too, suspect that scientists and models are being used to shut down discussion of matters they view as still open to debate.
All this makes the crises precipitated by a novel coronavirus an ideal case study for considering the role of the leader in a complex situation. Many leaders are genuinely committed to analytical, data-driven approaches, but acutely aware that decisions must be made in conditions of high uncertainty, where the science is not settled. Perhaps some are not above selectively choosing the “science” that lends an authoritative and objective aspect to decisions their gut prefers. Even then, however, perhaps a prominent display of at least claiming the value of evidence-based management might still have a positive effect, if it encourages people to find facts for themselves–and in the future expect and demand less decision-making by whim. Even when experts disagree on fundamental questions and individually fail to see the bigger picture of a complex phenomenon, their established “way of knowing” can influence others to believe more in rigorous truth-seeking through experimentation, careful analysis, and the broad dissemination of findings.
How should leaders change based on what is being revealed by this case study? Does it yield any general guidance for how to arrive at timely decisions that are sound and will be embraced? Does it suggest a way for leaders to know when experts of different kinds should come to the fore, and what weights should be placed on their advice? What risks should be accepted in the face of immediate and longer term costs of measures (example lives versus the economy)? Is it possible to self-diagnose when one has succumbed to “analysis paralysis” or otherwise abdicated responsibility for making a tough call in the face of competing values or tradeoffs? How do we prepare leaders better to step up to this responsibility?
the Drucker Forum Editors
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