While the leaders of China, Italy, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States are defending their slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the leaders of Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Taiwan and New Zealand are being praised for their early, decisive action to contain the spread of the coronavirus in their countries.


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided a clear message, decisive action and empathy when confronted with the coronavirus crisis. Hagen Hopkins/Pool Photo via AP

Is it just coincidence that the leaders being blamed (and now shifting the blame to others) are men and those who took early action are women? Or is there something in the way men are socialized to lead that created a blind spot for these male leaders?

Leadership has its roots largely in military campaigns – rallying the troops into combat, emerging victorious and taking no prisoners.  Shakespeare’s Henry V, the warrior king, served as a model as he inspired an undermanned army to perform heroic deeds in battle for the sake of God, country, honor and a share in regal brotherhood.

We have learned that leaders are confident, competitive and combative with the capacity to shape the future. This image of leadership may teach the alpha male that he can bend reality to his will, but it may be the wrong approach in dealing with a pandemic.

Masculine notions of leadership have often made it difficult for women to assume leadership positions.  We expect women to be helpful, compassionate, soft-spoken and concerned for others, but when they are assertive, decisive and goal-driven, traits we find perfectly acceptable in men, women may be criticized as being too aggressive.

But it was precisely these so-called female traits combined with steely resolve that made women leaders successful in the COVID-19 pandemic. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern had already given the world a master class in crisis leadership by displaying empathy and decisive action in embracing the Muslim community and outlawing assault weapons following the massacre of Muslims in a mosque last year.  In the COVID crisis, she demonstrated the same leadership qualities in closing the New Zealand society when the country had only a handful of cases, noting that cases will double every five days and thousands of New Zealanders will die if we do not take immediate action.  She provided a clear message, decisive action and empathy by cutting her pay to suffer economic hardship along with her citizens.


In the U.S., Ohio’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton, closed schools and imposed a stay-at-home order earlier than most states, which has significantly limited the spread of the virus in that state. Along with these early actions, her leadership style demonstrated transparency in speaking openly about the unknown, offering a unifying message about shared sacrifice and showing a sense of her vulnerability in talking of her own grief.

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” a management study about why some organizations surpass others, discovered that leaders in great organizations demonstrated an incongruous combination of humility and intense professional will. Rather than possessing larger than life personalities, Collins found these organizations were led by modest, almost shy, leaders who possessed fearless inner strength and stoic resolve. These leaders were willing to confront the most brutal facts of their current situation – to see reality as it is rather than as they would like it to be – and yet remained confident that with discipline and persistence, the most intractable problems could be overcome.

Collins was not describing women leaders, although the women leading their communities through the COVID-19 crisis exhibit humility in the face of a novel coronavirus and inner strength to take hard actions to lead society safely through this ordeal. Of course, women are not the only leaders exhibiting these leadership traits. Male leaders in Australia, Ireland and South Korea are also governing their countries in a similar manner.

As pressure mounts to open society even as new cases emerge, the leadership challenge ahead will require the same combination of humility and resolve. As society opens up, we will be wise to heed the approach of these women leaders to acknowledge that the virus will not conform to our wishes but we must humbly submit to new safer practices.

Comments are no longer available on this story