Published: March 9, 2020 By

We had intended to write this blog post about our incredible two days in Orange County at the Expo West Trek, where we planned to bring 11 Leeds MBA students who are participating in our MBA Natural & Organic Pathway to the industry’s largest trade show, which welcomes 90,000+ people to Anaheim each spring. On March 2nd, due to concerns around the coronavirus, Expo West was cancelled.  In the week leading up to that decision a number of large companies had grounded their workforce, and attendance at Expo West was projected to be down 60%. The leadership for Expo West made a tough decision in the face of a dynamic and unpredictable situation. No matter what they did someone was bound to be disappointed. But this is what leadership is all about: making difficult decisions that require weighing your values. While the coronavirus has created a lot of fear, it has also raised some interesting and urgent questions. Among those: how do you practice ethical leadership under pressure?

While we don't know what the after-effects of coronavirus will look like, 2 months since the first diagnosed case the global impacts are already enormous. As of this writing over 100,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and over 3,400 have died.  The virus has spread to 42% of countries across the globe. The only continent without a case at this time is Antarctica.

The biggest issue leaders at all levels are grappling with is how to keep people safe. Organizations and businesses have different kinds of responsibilities that they work to balance on a daily basis to constituents, their families, and their communities. Added to that is the challenge of making decisions when there are many unknowns and the situation is changing quickly. This reality is raising challenges of how to assess risk while dealing with incomplete information, and how to maintain public trust and act decisively. And they point to one of the core ethical issues the COVID-19 response raises: how to understand the societal harms and benefits of each possible course of action and how to identify that which yields the greatest net benefits.Cruise ship off coast of San Francisco

Perhaps the most important place this ethical dilemma shows up is in the question of how we, as a democratic society, think about the balance between individual liberty and community health. China attributes its cordon sanitaire (quarantine) of 50 million people to slowing the spread of the disease, allowing them to ramp up medical services, do extensive contact tracing and buying time for the research to advance. As the virus spreads around the globe more countries are grappling with this question in ways unique to their cultures and communities. For example, in Iran last Friday 60,000 mosques were shuttered for Friday prayers, Japan has imposed a two-week mandatory quarantine for visitors from South Korea which has seen a spike in cases, and a cruise ship with 2,500 passengers was anchored off the coast of San Francisco for days before being allowed to dock. These strategies for containment have impacts that span the globe. Who are we obligated to when making these decisions? What frameworks can we apply to help us think about how to resolve the ethical conflicts these decisions raise? And, do they hold up to analysis?

Another question leaders are facing has to do with balancing transparency with public reaction. The White House has said it will review the CDC’s proposed announcements prior to making them public. Across Australia fear of quarantines has led to a #toiletpaperapocalypse and the satirical paper Darwin's NT News printed 6 extra pages that can be used in case of an emergency. More seriously, here in Boulder N95 face masks are out of stock, the same masks used in asbestos abatement and other trades, and required by OSHA. Clearly panic is leading people to act in extreme self-interest, but a lack of information will potentially put people’s health at risk. What values do you need to weigh to work through the tangle of issues around balancing concern about keeping people calm with the need for accurate and timely information? Are there creative ways to practice ethical leadership in this instance?

NASA satellite images Coronavirus is reshaping daily life in sometimes unanticipated ways. One of those is a major reduction in air pollution over China, as this NASA satellite image shows. This is a result of factories closing down and the workforce being asked to stay home. Hand-in-glove with this has been the disruption of the global supply chain in industries from auto manufacturing to pharmaceuticals to technology. China is projecting a 6% contraction in GDP as a result of the virus with far reaching consequences. If you were in the position to make decisions would you try to take this opportunity to reshape the economy, or to get it back on its feet as quickly as possible? Which priorities does your character and sense of integrity require you to fight for? How do you reconcile personal values with complex global ecosystems?

Another outgrowth of the emerging crisis is the unprecedented degree of global scientific cooperation. The rate of scientific discovery has been incredible. We already have the virus sequenced, and are able to track genetic mutation as it spreads in almost real time on open-source websites and slack groups like the Wu-Han Clan, made up of scientists around the world. Open source is imperfect, and there has also been poor science circulated on these platforms which has had to be retracted. Yet it is not too much to say that COVID-19 has transformed how scientists around the world are communicating. If it were up to you, would this be a new model for the future or do the risks outweigh the benefits? Are the scientists participating in these networks practicing ethically? Whose values take priority and why?

There are many lessons to be learned from this event, and we are still in the midst of an evolving situation. But emerging events like the global spread of coronavirus raise many critically important issues, none of which have a simple, straightforward answer. Mark Meaney, PhD, Scholar in Residence and Director of UN Initiatives at Leeds School of Business framed it this way:

Nelson Mandala once said, “If you want to be a great leader, then you must first learn to lead yourself.” Ethical leadership is ultimately rooted in personal integrity which includes such values as honesty, truthfulness, compassion, responsibility and community. To Mandala’s point, for an ethical leader, these values do not change from one context to the next, from one job to the next, or from one level of authority to another. Citizens rely on their leaders to guide the community toward the common good. For example, citizens vest public servants with decision-making authority to safeguard public health. However, once a leader violates basic ethical principles such as  honesty or truthfulness, they undermine the legitimacy of the authority the citizenry vests in them.

Having said that, public health is one good among many others that constitute the entirety of the common good. In the event of threats to public health, honesty and truthfulness or transparency become even more important in communicating the facts to the citizenry about the impact of public health on the entirety of the common good.

A situation as complex as this one requires leaders to identify conflicting values, balance laws and norms with personal integrity, and be prepared to justify decisions to constituents whose willingness to follow is key to success. They require critical thinking, self-reflection, transdisciplinary collaboration and creativity. As leaders we need to ask ourselves: how will I lead during this crisis?