Six things I have learned about leadership during COVID-19 by Kanni Wignaraja

(Featured Image Photo by Cleyton Ewerton from Pexels)

In this blog, newly appointed UN Assistant Secretary-General Kanni Wignaraja shares how COVID-19 initiated a rough but revealing leadership induction.


I had just taken on my new job, as Regional Director for Asia-Pacific at the UN Development Programme, when early in the new year, we heard rumblings about a new coronavirus wreaking havoc, in Wuhan, China.

We didn’t know then, but we do now, that COVID-19 would inflict illness and death in most communities across the world and affect every economy. Some much more than others. There is much that leadership guides and seminars do not, and often cannot, prepare you for, and this pandemic has certainly been an irregular leadership induction for me. But it has also brought invaluable lessons for ‘leadership-in-the-rough’ that I thought might be useful to share as we all strive to navigate this new reality together.

First, so much is about being present and hopeful in the moment. It is about being optimistic while also being true to the facts. And this is not always easy, given what the science tells us and reality shows us. No one can escape from the grimness of the daily news. Sometimes we hear that the infection curve is flattening, in places. The next week that data is questioned. Every colleague and their family are watching the scenes of millions of people out of work, refugees and internally displaced at high risk, hospitals overflowing in one’s own neighborhoods, and day laborer’s scavenging for food. And yet, as a leader, while addressing these realities, we must continue to speak to solutions and to hope.

Secondly, the message changes all the time. We don’t know what we don’t know. As new data comes in, what we know changes, sometimes dramatically. You probably have to say more often that you would like to – ‘I was wrong’ or ‘there are new facts and I change my views.’ It is humbling yet compelling that a leader does so. Yes, the information is incomplete. The anxious adage of Silicon Valley ’building the plane as we fly it’ has never been truer. Whether advocating a new policy option, trying out a digital delivery platform, or managing workplace crises – all of this must now be done virtually, sometimes in crowded family spaces, and sometimes having to rework things to get them right. We are all making decisions fast, often with incomplete information, and the digital space seems to amplify the sound of decision-making, while condensing time. Being aware of that helps…some.

Thirdly, we need to make tough decisions read more

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