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      Leading Through Covid-19: An Experiential Reflection


      Matthias Ngwangwama


      FEW PANDEMICS AND disasters have posed such a potent threat to humanity as the Covid-19 pandemic.

      Covid-19 ranks as one of the most devastating calamities ever encountered by humankind. Both the developed and developing world, including the rich and the poor, people of all races and nationalities, have been affected by Covid-19.

      No one was spared.

      As gold is tested in fire, so leaders at all levels – individual, political, religious, civil society and business management – were sternly tested.

      They were thrown into the furnace of affliction by carrying the burden (in addition to their personal struggles) of leading others through a phenomenal crisis.

      Such leaders who have survived or are surviving a never-seen-before experience need to document their experiences in their own voices so that, as Winston Churchill apparently said, a good crisis is not allowed to go to waste.

      As someone in the front seat of an institution caught up in the storms of Covid-19 (the tourism and aviation industries were arguably the hardest hit), I offer reflective experiences of some leadership lessons learnt during the Covid-19 debacle.

      Experiential lessons from the pandemic are juxtaposed against hitherto known management and leadership principles and practices so as to bring to the fore potential novel insights emergent from the experience.


      Through the turbulent economic, social and environmental contexts of the 21st century, disruptions and discontinuities are likely to be experienced.

      Covid-19, and even the Russia-Ukraine war, food shortages and hyperinflation are current experiences in point.

      Given the potentially devastating implications of disruptions such as these, the concept of organisational resilience is gaining increasing interest in recent times.

      In a nutshell, the concept of resilience refers to the perseverance and toughness to emerge from devastating calamities and circumstances without losing hope.

      One lesson learnt during the Covid-19 calamity is for a leader to never lose hope but to continue believing that better days are just around the corner.

      A leader never losing hope is critically important, for without it, things can easily and quickly fall apart.

      In addition, Covid-19 has revived the virtue of (managerial) patience, e.g. the acquired and practised ability to persevere despite setbacks and changing internal and external realities.

      Novel dynamics about resilience and patience that have come to the fore in light of recent distressing events include exercising flexibility (and avoiding denialism at all costs), and practising continual discernment.

      This means a leader should be flexible and should not adopt denialist and blame-game dispositions during traumatic experiences.

      For instance, instead of denying that Covid-19 exists, Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) accepted and wholly embraced the difficulties brought about by the pandemic.

      With this understanding, we progressed attempting to innovate by becoming the first Namibian institution to offer accommodation facilities as Covid-19 quarantine and isolation centres countrywide.

      This is despite that venture being unthinkable at the time, because nothing or little was known about Covid-19.

      We focused on the domestic market, introduced new tailor-made products that have since metamorphosed into stand-alone products, and toyed with the idea of perfecting virtual tourism, such as introducing web cameras at popular wildlife spots.


      Leadership is a broadly discussed topic.

      There are many leadership approaches available to meet the needs of different countries, organisations and situations.

      This includes democratic, authoritarian (autocratic), authoritative, affiliative, pace-setting, delegative (coaching and mentoring), virtuous, transformational, ethical, authentic, spiritual and African leadership.

      There is an infinite bouquet of leadership choices available out there.

      However, good leaders must be emotionally intelligent, or sufficiently sensitive, and interpersonally aware to know which approach to adopt for different situations.

      Based on experiences from Covid-19, as well as the ongoing depressed social and economic conditions globally, essential coercive and autocratic leadership, but still within the ambit of law and policy (and not democratic leadership approaches), seems to apply best.

      For instance, no one would agree to have their remuneration reduced despite it being clear that if such a decision is not taken, a company may capitulate.

      No one, or few people, would willingly present themselves as guinea pigs for new vaccine trials despite knowing very well that benefits to accrue from such tests would save the individual and many people's lives.

      It is within this context that I argue that essential coercive and autocratic leadership is necessary during crises.

      For example, when NWR had to implement legally allowed remuneration reduction as per the Namibian Labour Act, as well as other cost-saving measures, a democratic leadership approach was deemed inappropriate in favour of an essential coercive and autocratic leadership approach to 'save' jobs, employment and livelihoods.

      Without a doubt, there is no time for prolonged debates during a crisis.

      There is no 'policy certainty'.

      The need for enhanced response times instead of 'democracy' is critical during a crisis.


      At the heart of stakeholder relation theories is the notion of minimal satisfaction of all stakeholders' interests.

      Effectively managing stakeholder relations and interests during depressing conditions and crises becomes critical.

      An experiential lesson learnt during Covid-19 is for leaders to identify, comprehend and optimally manage, with intensified efforts, the competing stakeholder interests during difficult times.

      This means continuous and elevated engagement with all stakeholders (for instance the public, shareholders, employees, media) is critical during a crisis.

      With regard to managing competing stakeholder interests, a novel insight to emerge from the Covid-19 experience is for leaders to induce an elevated culture of commitment by all stakeholders (sacrificing personal comfort and convenience) during a crisis.

      For instance, the NWR experience shows that we practically entrenched a culture of sacrifice by arguably becoming the only public sector institution in Namibia to implement a reduction of remuneration and benefits at the peak of Covid-19.

      * Matthias Ngwangwama is a business management scientist and practitioner. He serves as the managing director of Namibia Wildlife Resorts Limited. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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