Leadership in Adversity – My Experience of the Coronavirus Outbreak

auditorium hall view

ESTHER AKAFIAEsther Akafia

March 17, 2020

Four years ago, I embarked on a journey to use education as a tool to develop a generation of leaders to make an impact in the world, while also prepare for the opportunities and challenges of their time. My motivation stemmed from how education has changed my life trajectory and my knowledge that it could do the same for many others. So, when I joined the Next Generation Leaders fellowship with the McCain Institute, I was ready for my leadership journey to unravel. Little did I know that I will ultimately understand leadership in adversity, both personally and from the lenses of other leaders’ actions in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably seen the pandemic of the coronavirus and its consequence on life as we know it in many places, including the limits it has placed on international travel a key advancement of development in modern times. This was my purview when a week ago, I decided to visit Ghana to spend time with our schools and see first-hand how our final year students were preparing for their examinations. My fellowship requires me to be in the United States for nine months and one of the tough lessons I’ve had to learn is to find ways to maintain the work on the ground in Ghana whilst using the opportunity of the fellowship as a platform to leap and expand our impact. When you’re an entrepreneur in a start-up organization, you’re the spirit and heart of your dream. If the dream must be achieved, it is up to you; irrespective of how many team members you may have, your presence makes a significant difference in how your dream unravels. So, being away on a leadership journey that would enhance my goal to expand our schools also comes with the concern of whether everything is going well while I’m away or whether I would finish my fellowship and return to a school at all. It was with these in mind that despite the risk posed by the endemic nature of the coronavirus, I knew the right choice for my Leadership Action Plan was to be in Ghana.

My journey itself was uneventful but screamed fear from everyone. Why are you traveling? Don’t you realize the risk? What if you’re unable to return? These were all genuine questions but what does one do when there’s a need that must be fulfilled? Do you take the short cut and blame the environment you work in or do you look for solutions and make it work? The external environment I was operating in was one wallowing in fear, genuine fear, of a disease that could have deadly consequences. I decided my choice of flights must no longer be determined by what was cheapest the option, but rather what was the shortest route, least risky for cancellation or meeting an infected individual. Consequently, I took American Airlines and British Airways, and it turned out, I made the right choice when all flights from Schengen countries to the US were barred on March 13. The rest was luck, because I’m writing in an almost empty Heathrow Airport, the consequence of flight cancellations, and if I had travelled a day later, I wouldn’t have been able to pass through this airport – further flights having been banned effective March 16.

I’ve also been looking at how the various leaders in our world – religious leaders, political leaders, community leaders, family leaders – are responding to the coronavirus. Individual families have decided to stay at home with no external contact for the next months. Some churches have shut down, relying on online services, while others have stopped passing of offering baskets and administering the holy communion until further notice. Schools have shut down, relying on online service, and extreme medical decisions have been made in certain areas – choosing who lives or dies due to lack of resources. However, they are those whose actions still puzzle me. A CEO whose cleaning products have vanished off the shelves of supermarkets when asked on national television what alternatives people should use refused to mention the common-sense approach of ‘use soap and water’ until our Lysol is back on the market. I did wonder whether he realized this was a moment to have done what was right for the world rather than for his balance sheet. At the world stage, what I see is individual nations taking care of themselves as if we have stopped being a world community. What happened to the collaborations we used to witness in times of disaster where the rest of the world looked towards the biggest superpower of the world to lead us through? It appears to me also that we are not being given enough information as a world so panic has become the order of the day. In a world where 14,000 die of malaria each day, almost 2 million from tuberculosis each year not to mention flu, poverty, and war, the coronavirus shouldn’t have taken us by surprise given the history of bird flu, ebola and the challenges that come with globalization. So, I feel as if our political leaders failed us by not seeing the possibility of this through the lenses of history, science, and globalization. The consequence is a complete halt to the airline, travel, entertainment, tourism, and their ancillary industries. As I sit in an almost empty Heathrow Airport en-route to the United States to complete my fellowship, I have these questions to myself:

  • Did we honestly not foresee this ever happening when even movies like contagion saw it, and scientists forecasted situations like these?
  • Have we realized how not having a concerted approach affects the world at large?
  • Have we noticed how not being transparent enough has caused us more?
  • And personally, do I even know what I would have done differently if I had known flights back to the US would have been canceled as of March 16?

For our schools, students have been sent home until further notice, homework packets have been distributed and examination classes will have online and phone tutoring. That is the environment we live in now.

One thing for me is certain, and if I may borrow the words of Ambassador Michael Polt of the McCain Institute, “When you look at failures around the world, it’s because of one or most of the following: lack of leadership, failed leadership, malignant leadership…” So, my lesson is we need leaders of self – stop stocking up for essentials meant for your community to last only you for a year; leaders of businesses – if you are asked on national television what else individuals could use since your products are no longer on the shelves, it’s okay to mention soap and water although you deal in hand sanitizers. Don’t only think of your bottom line; if you are the superpower that the world looks up to, rise up and use that power to bring all together to solve a problem. I have missed the American leadership of the world in this adversity. This is not a time of your country first, and don’t leave the rest of the world hanging and create an animal farm.

The world is looking for leadership at every place – let us notice and take a step beyond self and make a difference. Coronavirus is just but one of the challenges of our time. Be part of the solution for today, and ask yourself what is my leadership action plan for myself, my community and the world to solve some of the problems of our time?

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan “do-tank” that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
March 17, 2020
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