An Echelon Media Company
Monday October 18th, 2021

Opinion: Leading For a New Safe and Prosperous Normal

TO MASK OR NOT TO MASK -Like most Sri Lankans the VIPs at the swearing-in ceremony in Kandy are unsure

ECONOMYNEXT: The threat of Covid-19 still haunts us even though Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world, keeping it at bay. This is because threats of outbreak loom large with most of the world still piling up record numbers of cases – including SAARC neighbours India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

A majority of us – people and businesses – are now back to normal. While lives and livelihoods have resumed, the flipside is that we’ve done so without normalizing the hygienic and healthy adaptations required in the daily lives of people from many walks of life.

In Changing behavior through awareness, key to recovery from Covid-19, we explored basic psychology of how we can change for the better. As we discussed, a significant risk of fast onset contagion remains if unsafe behaviours continue despite the advice of experts continues as the economy continues to open.

While awareness is one aspect, effective leadership is another key to driving positive social change, and leadership can come from many – politicians, business executives, civil society, health experts, or citizens. And in the case of keeping pandemic in check, we’ve seen some examples of effective and technically sound leadership coming from authorities – government, health, and law enforcement.

However, there’s a long way to go with leadership in social, business, economic, political, technological, media, and other sectors. Yes, there are a few standout examples, but not enough. Even when there’s leadership from the authorities, there’s room for improvement.

Here’s an example – the sense of discipline required for defeating Covid-19 has been driven thus far by authorities by setting rules. First, the health authorities have laid out detailed advice for all contexts we encounter in our daily lives. Then, action by law enforcement has coerced groups of people to observe quarantine, social distancing, and other safe behaviours.  However, in some communities, places of businesses, and elsewhere people are complying merely to evade punishment.

To check these failures and build better leadership, three – very much interrelated – dimensions are fundamental. The first is humane empathy – in engaging and understanding people by open listening to establish what matters to them and the difficulties they face. Secondly, competencies are required in prioritizing values, objectives, and practical solutions for progress. Finally, clear and consistent communications must be backed up by exemplary leadership. Now, let’s look at each in turn.

Leading with Empathy

Empathy is a buzzword these days, and for all the right reasons because meaningful change and progress can only happen when people are understood. In today’s context, we need to be emotionally intelligent to open up, listen to others, and to work together to find solutions.

In our society – movies, books, and political arenas – the leader is pictured as strong-willed and singlehandedly breaking through the barriers and leading his people to glory and safety. However, this ignores the complex realities. Tackling the seemingly vulnerable and uncertain space that comes from engaging with people from different walks of life, preferences, and priorities is key to emotionally intelligent leadership that succeeds.

Today, we can only be safe if all of us are, and our defences are only as strong at its weakest link. A leader needs to empathize with the challenges facing diverse groups – and especially those who will struggle the most to adopt new behaviours. The challenges are valid to them – whether due to obvious lack of economic or physical abilities or something that stems from social, family, cultural, or similar psycho-social reasons.

Across Sri Lanka, we see labourers on the streets, in construction sites, and in cramped work sites where it’s difficult to comply with safety practices. Shedding sweat, tired, and often burned out, it’s unlikely that hygiene is the foremost concern on their minds. There are slum dwellers and communities where multiple families live in the same shack with hardly any space to maintain social distancing. The young mother or father heading home – at times long distances after work using public transport – may forget the regulations to get home quickly to the kids awaiting food and care.

Elsewhere, in religious settings, large social cliques where people hang out, and entertainment venues, people tend to ignore the requirements not because they can’t afford to but because they give into conditioned behaviour and social compliance over safety. You can also observe older men often being the odd ones out not wearing masks and some refusing to shave their beards when wearing face masks.

Empathetic leaders – political, social, religious, and business – must create inclusive and open spaces to engage and listen to understand these issues and motivations – both rational and emotional. For instance, to find solutions that work for the workers, the whole worker community, supervisors, and community around them must be part of the discussions to elucidate the issues. The onus is on the entrepreneur to lead or facilitate/delegate leadership from within the business’s community. Similarly, the religious leaders may engage their community or the youth leaders the young.

The government has rightly put the responsibility of workers at the hands of business leaders. Now, they must go a step further to both include the whole community and to mandate a process of open and inclusive engagement with empathy and support. The top-level task forces will do well to prioritize empathy-based behaviour interventions leaving punitive actions as a last resort.

Prioritizing Values, Objectives, and Practical Solutions

All of us, especially leaders, need to remember and repeat: we can only be safe if all of us are. Even if we leave aside the moral argument that we must do right by all, any smart pragmatist will realize this is the only sensible choice. It’s heartening that in high-level global, regional, and national leaders’ conversations, there have been discussions about getting help to those most in need. However, either these solutions have often focused on hand-me-downs, or they haven’t cut through systems that often leave out defenceless masses.

Give a man a fish, he’ll eat a day, teach him to fish, he’ll feed himself is an excellent maxim here. Yes, the government, businesses, media, and civil society leaders must prioritize safety, healthcare, and subsistence aid people need to get by today. However, if their ability to fend for themselves is left unattended, there’s no happy ending – not for them, not us, and nor the leaders who call the shots.

In Sri Lanka, the spread of COVID-19 is sparse, but as of a couple of months ago, it was the same in Singapore. That was until migrant workers – a vulnerable and impoverished community – contracted the disease in tens of thousands. Singapore, like many others who failed to heed warnings of likely breakouts in dense and underserved communities, suffered from their own neglect. And the cost for Singapore as things stand is the largest percentage GDP loss in Asia in 2020. Fortunately, though, Singapore having one of the best public health care systems in the region, finally absorbed the migrants excluded initially into the system minimizing the loss of life.

Public goods – health and social protection in this case, but also education and others, seem to have contributed to success stories of battling COVID-19 in developing Asia, like in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. However, our public services spending has been plummeting for decades, and this is the time to correct the course.

The foremost value must be for protecting the wellbeing of Sri Lankans now and in the future – minimizing the risk in any which way possible being a critical objective. Evidence is aplenty that minimizing crowding, good hygiene, proper planning, and adaptation of technology can make a huge difference – ask South Korea and China. Political, social, and business leaders can set a range of smart objectives that minimize health, economic, and social risks, promote safety and wellbeing, and induce mid and longer-term recovery, growth, and sustainability.

In addition to the government, leadership at businesses, communities, youth, and other collectives have critical roles. Given the broad range of issues at play, only a cohesive effort from the leaders of multiple sectors will result in the most progressive and productive values, objectives, and solutions.

We have to hit the ground running and kick off actions straightaway. For instance, technology has driven multiple solutions enabling people to work from home not only reducing risk but also giving people more time with their families and kids, saving transport costs, and cutting down on harmful emissions. Tech solutions have emerged from contact tracing and healthcare to customer service and managing value chains. Socio-economic solutions may vary from immediate actions like staff shift rotation to allow staff breathing room to comply with safety guidelines while keeping business running to longer-term ones like building capacity and adaptability to enable workers’ and industries’ progress. Similarly, solutions that are political, economic, or environment need to be explored.

Throughout the process of prioritization, setting objectives, strategizing, and delivery, two precursors are mandatory. The first is the empathetic and active engagement of the communities’ party-to or affected by the solutions, and the second being a holistic cross-sectoral collaboration of expertise.

Credible Communication and Leading by Doing

Communication is the critical glue that holds social progress together in creating awareness, engagement, trust, and empathy, and then, in inducing action. The design of communication needs to be anchored in empathy – aware of the audiences’ lives and framed with relevance to them.

We discussed in the first section how advisory and punitive communication has resulted in limited compliance. The failure is the lack of empathy – the lever that creates positive motivation for voluntary ownership of the safety actions.

Urgent investment is needed to build conviction among people on how safe and hygienic behaviours will lead to safety and progress for them, their community, and the nation. A reminder of what’s at stake – in failure – will be useful but presented in potential cost in lives, money, and wellbeing. There’s a need for leadership not only from media and communications professionals but also from public authorities, business, social, and civil society leaders, especially in being open to embracing audience-focused, impactful, and outside the box communications strategies.

We do have the right messages– from the health authorities. And we can learn strategies from countries who’ve done well: Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand stand out as shining examples where clear and well-thought-out communications have been an integral part of fighting the pandemic successfully. International development agencies and peoples’ organizations have a wealth of know-how and leadership on social norms and behaviour change. Creative storytellers and marketers can also play a leadership role here.

Media – traditional and digital – can go beyond being mere channels. Their leadership will be in prioritizing valuable – life-saving and progressive – information over sensationalist coverage, and they can play a role in facilitating empathetic engagement.

No matter what the medium is, we need competent strategies to gain and retain attention, especially given the stressful and fast-paced world where there are a million things on our minds. We can only keep seven items in our minds at any given moment, a lot less goes into our memory, and even less ends up coming up when we need them because of how our brains are wired. Not only do we need messaging that appeals, but they must also be noticeable and repeated until they sink in. There must be well-thought-out plans accounting for them and mobilizing resources required – human, financial, or material.

At businesses, schools, local social hubs, and communities, there must be leadership in strategizing and enacting communications. And it doesn’t end there because we must promote positive behaviour, and this requires collaborative leadership between sectors. Do take a look at Changing behaviour through awareness, key to recovery from Covid-19.

Last, yet perhaps most importantly, communication is not about words, pictures, or signs. Leaders must set a credible example, as some top government and health officials have done. However, it’s disappointing that elsewhere they’ve failed spectacularly. Over the past month, we’ve seen political leaders from all sides, giving up social distancing and hygiene to look good to impress voters or media. We’ve seen business bosses, religious and social leaders grossly risk the lives of the followers by setting negative examples – saying and doing the wrong things.

Things do need to improve and fast.

Leadership is about communicating, establishing trust, and inspiring. It is about acting with empathy and competently walking the values that can save the day and make things better for tomorrow. And, leadership is not the privilege and permanent title of the few. Today, you, me, and all of us can play a leadership role in bringing forth safety, wellbeing, and progress.


About the author: Nipuna is an expert in communicating for positive social, behaviour, and policy change having worked for over 15 years with local and international development agencies. The views herein are his own and not of any organization he is or has been affiliated to. He can be contacted at


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