Inclusive Leadership For Uncertain Times

Like the rest of the world, Malaysia faces an existential threat from Covid-19.  In a matter of a few months, the disease is causing unprecedented damage to the nation.  We are now used to news stories about tragic deaths, communities in lock down, suspended business activities, lost jobs and many other negative effects.  Many are describing the situation as war-like.

Challenges that leaders faced previously, pale into insignificance now.

“Dealing with Covid-19 is truly a challenge like no other. If community and national leaders do not respond effectively, many aspects of Malaysian life can be changed for the worse, potentially for the long-term.”

Many of the country’s achievements over recent decades could be wiped out, with some communities, organisations and even the government facing serious threats to their existence.  More than usual, we look to our leaders for direction.  Do they know any better than we do, about how to respond?  Are they equipped to lead us? What experience can they rely on to lead us? What capabilities do they need to lead us out of this crisis?

Key points:

  • Covid-19 is a profound challenge to our way of life
  • Impact of Covid-19 will be felt for many decades
  • Leaders need people’s trust in order to lead effectively
  • Leaders don’t have solutions, but they can facilitate solutions to emerge from the people they lead
  • An inclusive leader is best suited to lead communities, organisations and states out of this crisis.

Leaders who rely on their existing knowledge, experience and capabilities alone will not make the cut.  They may have been a great corporate leader, an exemplary senior public servant or a charismatic leader in politics.  However, this mix of qualities will count for nought, if people cannot trust them in a crisis of this nature.

“Leaders in this time of crisis must have the people’s trust.”

Leaders must build trust on two levels.  Cognitive trust is based on the understanding that a leader addressing Covic-19 has capabilities and resources to meet the challenge.  Affective trust is the capacity of the leader to engender a feeling of safety and security in people, and this happens if people believe that their leader has their best interests at heart.  People trust their leaders if they believe they will not be left behind, they will not be excluded or become expendable, no matter what.

Once trust is established, leaders must bring people together to plan and act.  It is clear that no-one has the answers to Covid-19, as there is no precedent to draw upon and no expert who knows what worked last time.  The Spanish flu happened in 1918 and the world has completely changed since then.  Therefore, leaders will need to draw on a range of people with different kinds of specialist knowledge and advice, and have the skills to generate agreement on what to do.

Leaders need shared agreement so that people trust the advice and will implement any instructions.  Inevitably, there will be many conflicting pieces of advice and not everyone will agree with how to implement the advice.   The role of leaders is to synthesize various pieces of information and then formulate and communicate a message that is clear, coherent and cogent.  If leaders are trusted, people will be comfortable for some kinds of appropriate force to be applied to ensure the advice is implemented as planned.

Even with inclusive leaders who have the right skills and qualities, there will not be an easy road out of this crisis. It is likely there will be many missteps, miscalculations and misgivings.  We will argue, bicker and brawl.  The role of leaders here is to hold us together while we work our way towards a solution.  Effective leaders do not take sides but keep us together while we debate and disagree.  Even when mistakes are made, the leader should not lose focus, but concentrate on what has been learned and what is the main game.




“It is not what you know that counts for great leadership, it is how you lead.” 

In leadership literature there are two types of challenges – technical and adaptive.  A technical challenge is one that has obvious solutions.  A bank that is losing money year-on-year will, if well-led, can work out a way of reversing the situation.  A school that has poor grades can, with good leadership, change its curriculum, improve teaching quality and strengthen parent-teacher engagement for example, to improve student performance.  These kinds of technical challenges are familiar problems with well-known solutions. If additional help is needed, people with expert knowledge can help facilitate responses to technical challenges.  On the other hand, an adaptive challenge is one that defies everything we know about how to solve problems, often called wicked problems.  We don’t know how to solve world hunger, the global refugee crisis, and now Covid-19.

What should leaders do to address Covid-19?   Leaders have already begun to understand that Covid-19 is not just another health problem: responses to the diseases have now affected and disrupted every aspect of our lives.  Businesses have come to grinding halt, schools have closed, people have been isolated and governments are scrambling to provide basic services.  Finding a ‘cure’ for the disease is not enough to fix the problem.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Albert Einstein

To tackle the Covid-19 challenge we have to learn new ways and discover new processes.  We have to develop new judgements, clarify our values, develop new ways of relating to one another and give power to people who normally do not have power so they too can participate in finding a solution.  Here the role of leaders in facilitating groups of people with various ideas and responsibilities is critical, since clearly one leader does not have the required knowledge to address all aspects of the challenge. The challenge is how to unite to beat the disease, not just how to control Covid-19.

Leaders’ roles in facilitating solutions to adaptive challenges are never straightforward.  Some people prefer their leaders to give them a solution.  Others do not want to give up their current familiar lifestyle, so prefer things stay the same.  Others may be reluctant to cooperate with people who may be different from them, because of ignorance, fear or a lack of trust. Yet others cannot get passed their sense of blaming others, even though this does not achieve anything.  Any of these situations can apply to Malaysia.  However, since Malaysia is blessed with many races and religions, leaders here should not go down the route of ruling by dividing the population into groups – the in groups and the out groups.  Instead leaders should seek to build trust among all people to meet this challenge.  With this trust, leaders’ role is to ‘hold’ people in a safe place while a series of responses to the challenge are negotiated.  Leaders must acknowledge and demonstrate that our diversity is our strength and that everybody’s contribution is valued.  We have to save every single individual in order to save the whole nation.

“Despite leaders’ best efforts, failures are inevitable.”

Failures and disappointments will strain our sense of who we are and our core values as Malaysians.  It will strain our unity.  We may struggle to see the goodness in each other.   Our shared trust may erode.  In this context, we turn to our leaders to accept failures and continue to search for solutions, while keeping everyone included and valued.

Whether we are leading a country or a company, whether we are in charge of an MNC or an SME, whether we are a head of a village or member of a gotong royong or a religious leader, let us be more inclusive in the future.  Let us create a place for everyone without fear or favour and above all let us value the gifts that people bring to defeat Covid-19 and build a brighter future

A leader for these times is an inclusive leader, someone who is humble, who engages both experts and ordinary folk, values the gifts that each bring and most importantly makes sure that we are working together towards the same goal, in this case to beat Covid-19.  There is no room for special treatment for special interest groups, because we are all in this together.  If somebody or some group is left behind, we all suffer.  We always knew this but lately it has been forgotten.

“In this crisis we have to remember that we are tied together by our common humanity.” 

Ernest Antoine