The rise of leadership for the greater good
In the space of eight short weeks, the threat posed by COVID-19 and the sudden absence of partisanship from the political landscape ushered in a focus on leadership for the greater good, the likes of which we have not seen for years.
As an extension of the Australian Leadership Index—a long-running survey to gauge public perceptions of leadership for the greater good—Australian were surveyed for eight weeks between March 17 and May 6 to measure perceptions of institutional leadership for the greater good during the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis.
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1. Perceptions of overall leadership for the greater good reached positive levels for the first time ever in response to COVID-19. Perceptions peaked at the end of April but declined slightly as restrictions began to ease.
2. The government sector recorded sharp increases in perceptions of leadership for the greater good. This increase was particularly apparent in the Federal government and in many of State governments, most notably the Western Australian Government.
3. Public health institutions were seen as showing exemplary leadership for the greater good. Private health institutions were also perceived positively, whereas health insurance companies were not perceived to lead in the public interest.
4. Public sentiment about the education sector was mixed. Public education institutions were perceived to show a modest degree of leadership for the greater good. By contrast, private education institutions were not perceived to lead in the public interest.
5. Supermarkets were standout performer compared to other commercial entities, with the public responding positively to product limits and safety measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
6. Australians considered themselves well-informed about the COVID-19 pandemic and relied heavily on public media and official government information to stay informed.
7. Public media institutions, but not private media institutions, were seen to demonstrate leadership for the greater good during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A promising glimpse of leadership for the greater good
Since September 2018, when ALI started tracking public perceptions of leadership for the greater good in Australia, the Index had never recorded a positive ALI score for overall impressions of leadership. However, perceptions changed dramatically as the COVID-19 situation evolved and institutions of all types responded to the unfolding public health crisis.
The most striking improvements were found for public perceptions of government, in general, and the Federal Government, in particular. Public perceptions of government leadership for the greater good have remained stubbornly low since the inception of the ALI in 2018, a situation compounded by public perceptions of poor leadership during the 2019/2020 bushfire crisis.
However, what a difference (another) crisis makes. The innovation of a national cabinet that drew together Federal, State and Territory Governments, all focused on averting a major public health crisis, was appraised positively by the Australian public and perceived as demonstrating genuine concern for the wider public interest and leadership for the greater good.
Another significant finding of this survey was the esteem in which the public holds those people and institutions who are on the frontline of protecting and sustaining the public good.
In the public sector, this was exemplified by public health institutions, which were consistently perceived as demonstrating strong leadership for the greater good. In the business sector, this was exemplified by supermarkets, which were marked by their service of the public interest.
What are the prospects for leadership for the greater good?
The ALI was founded on the principle that leaders should act beyond self and vested interests to benefit the greater good, and this leadership should come from institutions across all sectors.
Unhappily, since its inception in September 2018, the ALI has painted a dim picture of the state of leadership across Australia, with the exception of a small handful of institutions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily brought the wider public interest to the fore, and institutions across all sectors have instigated measures to protect the greater good.
To be sure, crises, such as COVID-19 pandemic, crystallise a shared understanding of the common good and encourage people and institutions to pull together in a manner not typical of more ordinary times.
Nevertheless, by shining a light on leadership for the greater good, what it looks and sounds like, and how it can be improved, this pandemic may yet have a silver lining for the future.