by Stephen Smith
Back in 1938 a man called Chester Barnard wrote a book called The Functions of the Executive. It is still in print as it is considered one of the most influential books in public administration ever published. Three basic principles outlined in that book have guided me in my own career, and guide me now when I wonder why leaders in some countries have been so much more successful than others in tackling the spread of COVID-19 at an early stage, and in “flattening the curve” by slowing down the spread of the virus so that hospitals are not overrun beyond their capacities.
In these countries, organizations, businesses and individuals have all embraced the need to do their bit. Political leaders at all levels of government have tossed partisanship aside and are working together for the common good. They don’t quibble about who has what responsibility, but instead agree to be mutually supportive. They appear before the public daily to ensure that communication is consistent and clear. They defer to health and medical experts to ensure that communication is accurate and transparent. As a result of their direction, “non-essential” businesses have shut their doors, as have public gathering places like libraries, community centres and even golf courses. Most individual citizens are staying at home and, when venturing out to get necessary supplies, are following basic instructions like frequently washing hands and maintaining a safe physical distance from others. Every level of government, every business, every organization, and every individual are suffering from the economic consequences of these measures, but are accepting that at this time, public health must take precedence over economic considerations.
Significantly, none of the leaders of these countries are saying that they have achieved success. They are humble enough to recognize that there is still a very long way to go before we can say that the spread of the virus has been stopped, and they have not ceased exhorting all citizens, on a daily basis, to continue to ”double down”. The clear message is that everyone has a role to play in achieving our goal. Fortunately, there is almost universal acceptance that compliance is necessary.
On the other hand, there is at least one country where the onset of the virus was not taken seriously, where messaging has been confused and contradictory, where blame for the predicament is freely thrown around, where economic and political considerations often take precedence over public health, and where there is little or no coordination at the national level. Significantly, the leader has no humility, boasting regularly that he is doing a great job and “everything is under control”. Tragically, the result is not surprising. The number of cases is growing exponentially each day, to the extent that the “leader of the free world” now has 25% of the world’s cases and the third highest number of deaths. There is little doubt that it will soon lead the world in the latter department as well.
What are the three principles from Barnard’s book that the leaders of most countries are putting into practice? It’s very simple. Barnard asserted that the most efficient and effective organizations were
- guided by a sense of common purpose recognized by everyone;
- characterized by a willingness on the part of all participants in that organization to work towards the achievement of that purpose; and
- guided by frequent, consistent communication convincing everyone that their willingness is not only in the interest of the organization, but in their own interest as well.
These principles have been followed in countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Denmark, and Canada, with encouraging results. The United States is a spectacular example of what happens when they are not.