Why Fighting COVID-19 Requires Character

image of a woman and a boy holding pans up in the air

Singing your heart out for others isn’t hard when you are at a celebration like a wedding. But it takes strength of character to do so while in self-isolation to protect yourself from a deadly virus that is preventing your community from gathering, even to honour the dead. In the days ahead, the images of Italians serenading each other from open windows and balconies as they struggle to survive within the European epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic should serve as inspiration to us all.

This is especially true for leaders, because as past unprecedented events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks have shown, good leadership is what societies in crisis need most.

With the emergence of COVID-19, leaders across all sectors and at all levels in societies worldwide face enormous challenges. How they behave and the decisions they make will separate the bad and mediocre from the truly great. And the importance of good leadership will be only magnified further as we all continue to confront highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations. These challenging and insecure times demand good judgments that are formed through, and rely upon, the coalescence of a leader’s character.

In discourse surrounding this virus outbreak, the word “character” has surfaced a lot because a leader’s character and how it contributes to their decision-making and subsequent action is clearly critical to their ability to allay fear, move people forward, and help facilitate a solution that will benefit all of society. In The Atlantic, Peter Wehner wrote about U.S. President Donald Trump, noting “it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.” While reflecting on the pandemic in The New European, Michael White observed, “These challenges become a test of character and judgement.”

But what exactly is character? Often used in very cavalier ways, there is no consistent understanding of what the term means. This is problematic because character, as highlighted above, is a potent differentiator in leadership, especially during a major crisis.

In 2010, the Ivey Business School established the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership with a mandate to focus on leader character. Our research resulted in the creation of a framework consisting of 11 dimensions of character and supporting behaviours (see Exhibit 1) that we identified as foundational to good leadership. Studies using this framework have and continue to be published in leading academic and practitioner journals, and we strive to ensure our work is relevant, accessible, and useful to participants in degree-granting programs and to leaders in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors.

Exhibit 1


As represented graphically in our framework, the reason that character is a critical and indispensable component of good leadership is its central relevance to effective decision-making and subsequent action. Character shapes a number of things, including but not limited to: what we notice within the context we are operating in; how we interact with the world around us; who we engage in conversation and how we conduct those conversations; what we value; how we interpret feedback; what we choose to act upon; how we deal with conflict, disappointment, and setbacks; the goals we set for ourselves; how we communicate; and so forth.

Any crisis exposes both the good and bad in people who find themselves in leadership roles. But the unique aspect of leader character is that it is linked to an individual’s disposition, not one’s position within an organization. As such, COVID-19 is revealing things about the citizens of affected nations as well as their leaders. The singing Italians, for example, serve as a powerful reminder that we can find creative ways to remain connected as medical experts urge us to remain apart. Interconnectedness—to sense and value deep connections with others at all levels within organizations, communities, and society—is an important part of the character dimension of collaboration, while drawing upon optimism and appreciating the beauty of art (music, painting, poetry) are part of transcendence.

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the dimensions of character with concrete examples of the behaviours that leaders and citizens alike are manifesting during the pandemic. We believe it is of paramount importance to raise awareness of the construct of character and its dimensions—not just to ensure it is brought to the forefront of leadership education and development, but so it can be used by citizens in our everyday lives and as a tool by which we measure, vote for, and follow leaders.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, we are certain that the lessons emerging from humankind’s response will help to deepen our research and inform our efforts to develop global citizens who have strength of character, strive to make a difference, and contribute to the flourishing of teams, organizations, communities, and societies.

In the following sections, we first explain the critical role of judgment in human agency and how the unique dimensions of leader character—independently and interactively—influence decision-making and subsequent action. We then share several stories to illustrate character and its dimensions in action and showcase their profound impact on individuals and societies. We end our paper by issuing a challenge for all of us to find ways to develop strength of character and make a difference in the societies within which we operate.

The Critical Role of Judgment

Now more than ever—whether it’s the acute flaring of the COVID-19 emergency or the slow burn of the climate crisis—the world requires leaders with strong judgment. We need leaders who are able to activate each dimension of character at the right time and in the right amount to guide their decision-making and call forth the right behaviours. Of course, demonstrating good judgment creates a reciprocating effect in that it strengthens the other dimensions on which the leader relies.

It is easy to envision how each character dimension matters when leaders are presented with enormous and unprecedented challenges. For example, imagine how citizens might feel if a leader fails to exhibit humanity while sharing critical information with the public. If individuals perceive there to be a lack of compassion for, empathy for, and understanding of their personal hardships, they won’t feel a sense of connection to and trust in their leader nor confidence in the measures announced. People’s resiliency may suffer. We believe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struck the right tone and modeled humanity when moved to reassure citizens that the government understood their concerns and was prepared to help in mid-March. “I know that you’re worried,” Trudeau said. “You’re worried about your health, about your family’s health, about your job, your savings, about paying rent, about the kids not being in school. I know that you’re concerned about uncertainty in the global economy. The steps being taken to keep you safe have an economic impact. But what is also true is that we are in the enviable position of having significant fiscal firepower available to support you.”

Truly great leaders demonstrate strength in each of the character dimensions and, coupled with excellent judgment, are able to call upon and deploy the character dimensions to suit any particular situation: transcendence to visualize the needed end state and to remain optimistic while journeying the often long and difficult road to get there; integrity to recognize what needs to be done and to report candidly on the progress to those directly and indirectly impacted by the measures; drive to deliver results despite obstacles, unexpected twists and turns, and criticism/objections from affected parties; courage to make tough and often unpopular decisions; humanity to do what needs to be done, all the while caring about and taking steps to assist the many people affected; justice to recognize and issue the support needed by individuals and/or organizations to help mitigate the negative consequences born of a situation outside of their control; humility to learn and actively seek the best practices to lead organizations, communities, cities, and nations through the crisis; temperance to show calm and restraint even under the most dire of situations, especially as emotions, like a virus, tend to be contagious; accountability to the various stakeholders and bearing responsibility for decisions and the subsequent consequences; collaboration with a very large and diverse group of parties to achieve the desired outcome; and, finally, judgment, to bring all these dimensions together into an effective, efficient, and principled process to work through the crisis.

Judgment, obviously, is a complicated dimension. For one, it means people have to be situationally aware and demonstrate a deep appreciation for the heightened circumstances that will require unique approaches to address a threat. Furthermore, it requires the skillful analysis of a situation to grasp the essence of the challenges they are facing and the employment of logical reasoning to determine the requisite action. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz provided a compelling illustration of this in mid-March. When discussing European efforts to head off a paralysis of public health systems, he noted the associated economic damage. “You have to consider carefully when to adopt these measures, because a national economy cannot handle this over too long a period,” Kurz said.

“Countries are banning the entry of most non-residents while encouraging citizens to avoid gatherings. In some cases, whole communities are in lockdown. Churches are closed. The Irish had a virtual St. Patrick’s Day. We can almost guarantee that ‘social distancing’ will be the phrase that defines 2020.”

The Need to Learn Quickly

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis without modern precedent, where typical or even atypical rules do not apply. The situation is rapidly evolving hour by hour, country by country. Amid this uncertainty and insecurity, the fundamental role of any government is to keep its citizens safe. Dramatic measures are being taken, some previously unseen even during times of war. Countries are banning the entry of most non-residents while encouraging citizens to avoid gatherings. In some cases, whole communities are in lockdown. Churches are closed. The Irish had a virtual St. Patrick’s Day. We can almost guarantee that “social distancing” will be the phrase that defines 2020.

Conversations are often short on facts and hard science, while being long on hunches and opinions. But two things are clear. We have much to learn about the new strain of coronavirus that has altered our lives so quickly. We also have much to learn about how we, as an international and interconnected community, respond to a crisis that involves unprecedented levels of global disruption and risk.

Going forward, several dimensions of character need to be activated to inform and guide our decisions. The best leaders and teams are eager to learn from their own and others’ experiences—failures and successes—to reduce problems, mitigate harm, or even find a creative solution. In our current situation, it is critically important that we embrace humility: we must be reflective and respectful of other people’s experiences and ideas, and, most importantly, must adopt a mindset committed to continuous learning, as the virus will be with us for months, not days or weeks. Clearly, in Europe and North America, individuals in government agencies can learn from Singapore and Hong Kong, both of which have won praise for their efforts in mitigating the worst outcomes despite having reported cases early in the pandemic.

But for learning to truly occur, people need to be willing to step up and take ownership of challenging issues, including setbacks, mistakes, and a lack of progress. This can be extraordinarily difficult, and people tend to become defensive when they do not want to accept accountability. We saw an example of resisting accountability play out during a White House press conference when journalists asked about the slow rate of U.S. testing for the coronavirus. Instead of sending a “the-buck-stops-here” message, Trump denied taking missteps that some health experts say aggravated the crisis. Instead, he attempted to project an air of competence by insisting his administration—which disbanded the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018—was doing a great job dealing with problems left behind by the previous administrations. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said. “We were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

Instead of taking the threat posed by COVID-19 seriously early on, the Trump administration dismissed concerns raised by health care workers, government officials, and journalists. In some cases, people raising the alarm were even labeled a bigger threat to the country to serve Trump’s political interests. Advisors to the U.S. president know he tends to reward people who tell him what he wants to hear and casts aside those who don’t. “It’s a clearly difficult situation when the top wants to hear certain answers,” one insider told Politico. “That can make it difficult for folks to express their true assessment — even the most experienced and independent minds.”

To be effective, individuals in leadership positions need to act with great integrity. They must be truthful and straightforward with themselves and others, while remaining open and honest in relationships and communications, even in the most difficult situations. In other words, they must accurately represent to others what they truly believe and in doing so demonstrate a high personal and professional moral standard. For example, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided the requisite integrity when communicating with the American public while testifying at a House hearing in early March. Directly countering Trump’s claim that everything was under control and that the United States was conducting tremendous testing to keep it that way, Fauci bluntly noted that public health experts didn’t even have a good understanding of how widely the virus had spread in the United States. As for testing, he stated: “The system is not really geared to what we need right now. That’s a failing. Let’s admit it.” This took courage in addition to integrity. Candour often involves conflict because candour may get rejected and foster resentment. Most of us don’t like conflict, especially with people higher up, let alone the president of the United States. But leadership isn’t easy.

Another story that reflects a lack of government accountability vis-à-vis individual courage and integrity involves Li Wenliang, the first Chinese doctor to recognize the pandemic threat. His effort to warn fellow doctors led Chinese authorities to accuse him of making false comments that disturbed the social order. Tragically, because government officials did not heed the early warning, hundreds of Chinese citizens died, including Dr. Li himself. Now consider what happened in Italy. After the first local case of infection was identified, the government quickly issued a decree outlining urgent containment and management measures. A succession of transparent medical bulletins and press releases followed. As noted in a Brookings Institution commentary on lessons coming out of Italy by Federica Saini Fasanotti, a nonresident fellow in the Foreign Policy program, Italians have been made aware of the problem and have largely responded by making the huge sacrifices requested.

“Responsible democracies,” Fasanotti writes, “share information, transparently, with their citizens. They spread knowledge to enable solutions. Such transparency requires courage among political leaders, but is highly precious because it promotes confidence among citizens.” But nations with weak leaders do not share information readily, and that can be the beginning of the end for political leaders, especially in the Internet era.

The Need for Collaboration

Countries, communities, governments, organizations, and individuals around the world are having to rapidly adjust and adapt to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus continues to spread and unleash its damage on the health and well-being of individuals and the global economy, one thing has become unequivocally clear: there will be no easy way out for individuals and societies.

Most people understand that we live in an increasingly interdependent world in which networks of people and organizations form the basis of much activity (economic, scientific, security, political, etc.). As Ivey Professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz wrote in Developing Leadership Character, “A deep, visceral, and intellectual understanding of the nature of interconnectedness—and the development of a disposition to collaborate for mutual interest and the greater good—are critical to becoming and being an effective leader in a wide variety of contexts.”

Even the Dalai Lama has weighed in on the importance of interconnectedness, dialogue, and collaboration, offering words to remember as we face COVID-19 in his address on the 38th anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising. “The reality today,” the Dalai Lama stated in 1997 while issuing a call for universal responsibility to ensure the future of humankind, “is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.”

Dialogue, of course, can be challenging, especially when all concerned are more interested in who can be blamed. While using loaded terms like “the Wuhan coronavirus” or “the Chinese virus,” the Trump administration has attacked China’s handling of the outbreak, hoping to draw attention away from its initial downplaying of the crisis. The Chinese, in turn, argue patient zero might be an American. Saudi Arabia blames its outbreak numbers on Iran, which blames the epidemic on American bioweapon development. South Korea and Japan blame each other. All this finger pointing simply makes international collaboration difficult when it is needed most.

When you are collaborative, you recognize that what happens to someone, somewhere, can affect everyone, anywhere. You value and actively support the development and maintenance of positive relationships among people. You strive to connect with others at a fundamental level, in a way that fosters the productive sharing of ideas. The Italians, at least, understand this. Instead of smearing China in public, the nation’s officials offered support when China was hardest hit. When the tables turned and the death toll in Italy dramatically increased, the Italians then asked for help. China responded by sending expertise and supplies. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly told his Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio, during a phone call on March 10, China was willing to “stand firmly by the side of the Italian people” because of the “the precious support” offered by Italy when “we were at the hardest moment fighting the epidemic.”

The behaviours associated with collaboration are important in and of themselves to facilitate good outcomes. However, the inclination to collaborate creates a conduit of connection to others that supports humanity. Furthermore, collaboration can foster drive, since it can bring with it a level of contagious energy to tackle challenges. Demonstrating collegiality and open-mindedness, both aspects of collaboration, can facilitate candour and transparency, which are part of integrity. And being cooperative and demonstrating a sense of interconnectedness tends to support justice. It is reasonable to expect that a felt interconnectedness facilitates fairness and social responsibility, while positively influencing the degree to which leaders (or citizens) take into consideration a wide variety of interests in any situation.

Of course, to demonstrate justice in decision-making and actions, individuals need to activate several of the other dimensions of character. For example, in the absence of humanity and humility, a leader seldom bothers to understand how others may see things. Similarly, without temperance, a leader may rush to implement what is to him or her “the obvious course” without even considering the needs or wants of others or the consequences for some stakeholders. Such a myopic focus or tunnel vision is likely to negatively impact trust, respect, confidence, and anxiety.

On March 15, news reports emerged indicating that the governments of Germany and the United States were wrestling over CureVac, a Germany-based biotech company working on a vaccine for COVID-19. According to an anonymous source, the Trump administration offered large sums of money to secure the vaccine for the United States alone. This action, if true, is a blatant act of unilateralism. The world has acclimatized to Trump’s “America First” rhetoric when he talks about economics and geopolitics. But seeking to hoard a life-saving medical solution would move the MAGA (Make America Great Again) perspective into far more dangerous territory. In fact, it would be a disgraceful example of turning on rather than towards each other to deal with a common threat: this devastating pandemic.

As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown observed in The Guardian, we now live in “a divided, leaderless world” because the rise of populist nationalism has given way to “an aggressive us-versus-them unilateralism.” And this puts us all at risk by limiting international cooperation, as COVID-19 shows no respect for national borders. “It used to be said of the Bourbons that they would never learn by their mistakes,” Brown wrote. “Centuries on, national leaders still seem unable to apply or even absorb the hard-earned lesson that crises teach us, from the Sars epidemic and Ebola epidemic to the financial meltdown: that global problems need global, not just local and national, responses.”

Unilateralism is the antithesis of interconnectedness and collaboration. Though displaying bravado, it is infused with cowardice: unilateralism turns its back on humanity and justice in order to disregard its impact on large swathes of people and fails to engage in the hard work of dialogue and compromise. And so, as Brown went on to say, if we are going to truly make headway we “need political leaders in every continent with the courage not just to lead but to work together.” But for this to happen, we will need another of the resulting emanations of interconnectedness and collaboration: trust.

As Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne recently wrote, “Of all the ties that connect us, the most valuable and most fragile one is trust: that willingness, indeed, to let down our guard, to work with rather than against one another.” As we look to our elected officials, medical professionals, and business leaders to forge a path through this global crisis, trust will play a critical role in the outcome. But that trust, fostered through a sense of interconnectedness, humanity, and justice, will need to be placed not only in our leaders but also our fellow citizens. As Coyne stated: “A reservoir of trust—respect for leaders, belief in experts, faith in each other—can mobilize individual citizens to meet collective challenges.”

“What began as calamity in Wuhan, China, is now worldwide, and for most people has morphed from a vicarious experience into a primary one: Ground Zero is now, almost literally, all of terra firma.”

Hope and Optimism Going Forward

It is perhaps an ironic statement to talk about the “mobilization of citizens to meet collective challenges” when much of the world is on mandated or self-imposed lockdown. In this technological era, however, the definition of mobilization has evolved to encompass both the physical and the virtual. We are now able, for better or for worse, to reach out across global platforms to ideate or entertain, to scaremonger or caremonger (a trend started by groups of altruistic Canadians). But there should be no doubt whatsoever that we face a collective challenge. What began as a calamity in Wuhan, China, is now worldwide, and for most people has morphed from a vicarious experience into a primary one: ground zero is now, almost literally, all of terra firma.

When this reality was actualized in North America, the initial response of many citizens was a natural one: panic. This led to a frenzied and excessive purchasing of food and other essential items with many stores being cleaned out and #panicbuying and #ToiletPaperApocalypse trending on Twitter. Of course, fear and panic make ripe conditions for profiteers, no matter how unscrupulous it might be to leverage a global pandemic for personal gain. One story, amid many, that gained considerable attention was that of America’s now-infamous Colvin brothers, who took a U-Haul on a 1,300-mile opportunist road trip, traveling across Tennessee and parts of Kentucky as they amassed over 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer by cleaning out the stocks of Walmarts, Staples, Home Depots, and small-town dollar stores. The plan was to sell it all on Amazon at a massive markup (up to US$70 per bottle), but the retail giant cracked down on price gouging after they had unloaded just 300 bottles. Although this certainly displays a lack of humanity, it also highlights a lack of temperance.

In times of uncertainty, calling upon our temperance—being calm, composed, self-controlled, prudent—is critical to mitigating risk because, as author Parth Sawhney noted in a Thrive Global commentary: “Fear and panic can make rational people do irrational things.” As things stand, the initial sense of panic seems to be subsiding. As resignation sets in, people are being more conscious of the needs of others when they shop while electing to self-isolate or, at least, to carefully assess the need to leave their house. The world’s empty highways, transit systems, public gathering spaces, and malls are all a testament to our new-found temperance.

While national leaders do their best to remain calm, business leaders have also been stepping up to the plate. Many local stores, gyms, restaurants, and other small businesses have closed for the protection of their staff and patrons. Galen Weston Jr.—chair and CEO of George Weston Ltd., one of Canada’s largest grocery and drug store retailers—issued a statement to reassure Canadians that his company would quickly restock empty shelves, keep its stores open, and maintain their prices. New measures to accommodate the elderly and persons with disabilities were taken. In his statement, Weston repeatedly reiterated that Canadians have no need to worry about food supply, and he signed off with: “Be kind to each other. We will get through it.”

Meanwhile, in an unparalleled show of solidarity, a group of 100 Canadian business leaders signed an open letter that urged all concerned “to immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus.” In addition to detailing the measures they felt required urgent action, this letter, like the Weston statement, included a sense of transcendence (future-orientation, optimism, purpose). They acknowledged that the required actions would have a significant economic impact on their businesses, at least in the short term, but made it clear that “weathering this storm” was the priority. In other words, they focused on the end game: the eradication of the virus and recovery of individuals, systems, and societies.

The character dimension of transcendence helps us to maintain a future-orientation because it draws upon optimism, creativity, and a sense of purpose. Optimism is especially important in challenging times; optimistic people believe that not only is change possible, but—more importantly—they are capable of creating it. Within the current situation, that can certainly apply to politicians, business leaders, and scientists, but it can also apply to every one of us as we seek to be individual change agents by doing our part to contribute to the whole. As we endure the sometimes mundane monotony of today, it is with the optimism that there will be a tomorrow.

Transcendence also invokes a deep appreciation of beauty in such areas as music, arts, and sports. It is inspiring how many citizens are turning to music or the arts as a way of cultivating inspiration, appreciation, or gratitude while engaging in social distancing. This can include the livestreaming of concerts from venues across Europe to less deliberate offerings such as the aforementioned singing from balconies that spontaneously took place in Italy and Spain or even the private porch performance that two musical kids gave to a self-quarantined elderly neighbour in Columbus, Ohio. In Toronto, playwright Nick Green went so far as to create the Social Distancing Festival to provide people with virtual creative performances while supporting artists who have been deprived of a platform for work. Engaging with the creative side of ourselves is in itself an act of hope and optimism. Creation by its very nature is performed in the here and now, but often with an eye to its impact on the future.

Call to Action

We live in turbulent times. But it is important to understand that even the most dire situations present opportunities. As we all struggle to cope with the pandemic and its consequences, it is crucial to reflect on actions taken as well as to reflect in action while we work through a myriad of issues—health-related, social, economic, scientific, political, technological, and so forth. Disruptions should force people to question their present and accepted realities—the beliefs and assumptions we hang on to while operating in a complex and complicated world. Words often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill come to mind: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, we began to think differently about what good leadership looks like. Through research, we discovered that the crisis was not due to a deficiency in competence but a deficiency in character, at least to a great extent. We learned that the foundation of good leadership rests on three pillars: competencies, character, and commitment. But character had long been neglected in much of the leadership literature, in development and business programs, and in the leadership discourse in general. We concluded it was time to change that and embarked on an ambitious research, teaching, and outreach agenda through Ivey’s leadership institute..

Before the world went into pandemic-fighting mode, we held the Ivey Leadership Summit to celebrate our 10th anniversary. It was encouraging to have a sold-out crowd of leaders from a multitude of sectors engage with our work on leader character, which demonstrates its broad scope for application. Sadly, evidence of leadership that lacks character is just as broadly seen. We have all had a front row seat as the absence of humility, humanity, accountability, integrity, justice, temperance, and collaboration in some people—leaders and ordinary citizens alike—threatens to divide communities and countries, pushing us backward, not forward, when all concerned should be selflessly mitigating the spread of the virus and its often dire health implications.

The ongoing crisis has also taught us that character is not a niche topic or a “nice to have.” It is essential to good leadership. For many of us, our character is being tested at work, at home, in grocery stores, at airports, in hospitals and senior homes, and in our neighbourhoods. But we have seen countless examples of individuals—young and old—who have activated one or more dimensions of character to positively affect the lives of friends, colleagues, family, and complete strangers. And we all need to follow this example.

Our hope is that people pause and reflect as our daily lives slow to a near-halt. Reflection is a necessity for learning and progress. Years ago, television personality Fred Rogers said: “I’m very concerned that our society is much more interested in information, than wonder; in noise, rather than silence. How do we do that? How do we encourage reflection? Oh my, this is a noisy world.” We encourage you to reflect on the importance of character in leadership. And, most importantly, consider how each of us can raise the bar in our respective personal and professional lives by working to develop strength of character, striving to make a difference, and contributing to the flourishing of teams, organizations, communities, and societies. Canada needs it. The world needs it.

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