Have you encountered bad leadership and wished that the leaders were more discerning and effective?

Admit it. You secretly desire to understand how great leaders operate and to learn from them. You know deep down that the qualities of leadership have a profound impact on the fortunes of businesses, organizations, and governments. You expect good leaders (and bad despots) to stand out in a global crisis the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe leaders in crippling crisis management. The global spotlight will illuminate the strengths (or weaknesses) of leaders and offer invaluable insights into the traits of effective leadership. We turn the spotlight on 4 high-growth economies in Asia known for their recession-proof leadership: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. They are collectively known as the 4 Asian Dragons (also known as the 4 Asian Tigers). How their leaders manage the unprecedented challenge of the 21st century Great Depression would provide invaluable insights into understanding leadership.

The phenomenal rise in economic productivity and standard of living of the 4 Asian Dragons can be put into perspective by comparing them with the established Asia economic powerhouse Japan. The chart below compares the GDP per capita PPP of the named economies from 1980 to 2019:

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Accordingly to International Monetary Fund estimates for 2019, in terms of GDP per capita PPP Singapore ranked 3rd globally, followed by Hong Kong at 10th place, Taiwan at 12th place, and South Korea just one position behind Japan at 29th place. Apart from 2 barely noticeable kinks in the line graphs above, the 4 Dragon economies demonstrated stellar economic growth over the last 4 decades.

Let’s take a look at the reason behind the 2 small kinks.

Economic Resilience of the 4 Dragon Economies

Hong Kong and Singapore have established themselves as respected Financial Centres, whereas South Korea and Taiwan are established manufacturing hubs of electronic components and devices. They all pursue export-based industrialization aggressively and invested wisely in world-class infrastructure and education. The judicious leadership of these economies has fueled their astronomical ascent into the world arena, and hence their nicknames as the 4 Asian Dragons.

1997 Asian Financial Crisis

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Hong Kong as an Asian Financial Centre came under relentless onslaught against its stock market and currency. Hong Kong displayed decisive leadership with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (“HKMA”) uncharted intervention to stabilize the market with huge financial injections.

South Korea as the largest Dragon economy was devastated by ballooning foreign debts. Singapore and Taiwan stock markets were similarly affected albeit to a lesser extent. The decades of hard work of building up the economies enable the Asian Dragons to bounce back with stellar resilence much faster than other countries. The blip in their GDP per capita PPP was hardly noticeable and growth accelerated upwards before the turn of the century.

2008 Financial Crisis

11 years later, a more devastating Global Financial Crisis took its toll on the world’s economies. It was then regarded as the most severe global crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. The 2008 financial crisis ravaged the economies of many countries creating the Great Recession, with plummeting housing prices and skyrocketing unemployment. The Asian Dragons experienced a sobering contraction of 15% to their GDP in 2008. The strong leadership of the 4 Dragons again prevailed with a spectacular rebound in their economies through sound and timely fiscal stimulus measures.

The kinks in their GDP per Capita PPP were slightly more noticeable. However, the explosive growth that followed their recovery more than compensated through to 2019.

The Great 21st Century Depression: The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 (CoronaVirus Disease 2019) as a pandemic on 11 March 2020, plunging the whole world into an economic abyss. The International Monetary Authority (IMF) announced a global “deep recession” on 14 April 2020, citing economic decline “far worst” than the Great Recession of 2008.

With this backdrop, let’s take a look at how each of these 4 leading Asian economies handled the pandemic to distill the gems of wisdom from a leadership perspective.

The Right Metrics To Reflect An Accurate Picture

The Global Health Security (“GHS”) Index was proposed as an indicator of the pandemic preparedness of countries. It was developed jointly by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHU), and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2019.

However, the GHS Index failed to take into consideration the Leadership factor in shaping the response to the outbreaks. Some countries that were ranked high with the GHS Index ended up with an astronomically high number of cases and a record number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. The failure of the GHS Index highlighted the life-changing importance of leadership in crisis management.

With the benefit of hindsight, we review the effectiveness of each nation’s response based on actual data of the pandemic onslaught, with the key indices tabulated in Table 1 below:

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Coronavirus Data On 4 June 2020 (Worldometer)

Let’s examine the performance of each of the 4 Asian Dragons from Worldometer data taken on 4 June 2020, in the order presented in Table 1:

Hong Kong: Learning From Past Experience

Of the 4 Asian Dragons, Hong Kong is the closest to China where the Wuhan outbreak first occurred in December 2019. Yet it miraculously reported only 1,099 cases and 4 deaths as of 4th June 2020 when globally there were already more than 6.64 million cases and 389,957 deaths.

Since the devastating SARS epidemic in 2003, Hong Kong has adapted lessons learned into an effective Preparedness and Response Plan. When news of the coronavirus outbreak in China reached Hong Kong, thermal scanners and sanitizers were rapidly made available in malls and buildings. Residents were already sold on the protective usage of masks and needed no prompting from the government leaders.

The government of Hong Kong tightened border controls, ordered civil servants and companies to telework, and banned large-scale gatherings. Schools were closed in January 2020 through to May 2020. Although there was a spike in the number of cases from 15 March 2020, the Hong Kong government was quick to implement aggressive testing to isolate infected people and launched contact tracing to locate and control the spread of the coronavirus. Hong Kong government leadership successfully kept the coronavirus outbreak under control.

Singapore: Well-Oiled Government Machinery Roared Into Action

Singapore as an island state dependent on international trade and finance with a porous border as an International Hub was most at risk from the coronavirus pandemic. Once news of the coronavirus reached Singapore, the Singapore government expeditiously formed the “Wuhan Virus Ministerial Task Force” in January 2020, putting the entire government machinery at the disposal of the Task Force to deal expediently with the looming crisis.

The Task Force diplomatically informed mainland China the necessity for the small island state to close its borders to travelers originating from China from late January 2020. With low cases and no deaths over the following weeks, complacency set in as Singapore overlooked the enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing. The mistake proved costly as Singapore was inundated around mid-March 2020 by a sudden surge in the number of cases. However, the powerful and responsive Task Force displayed the right leadership traits for lightening-fast containment.

The ballooning spread of the coronavirus was traced to migrant workers staying in packed quarters. The Task Force took draconian steps to isolate and quarantine the 300,000 migrant workers. A “Circuit Breaker” lockdown was implemented nation-wide from early April 2020 to ‘short-circuit” the spread in the community. Testing was skyrocketed quickly to a testing capacity of 8000 a day with plans to reach 20,000 daily and beyond if needed, making the 69,865 tests/1m pop metric the highest amongst the Asian Dragons.

The fastest-growing Asian Dragon with deep financial reserves was also mindful of the impact on the economy. The country’s top leadership steroid-pumped the island-state economic recovery with the announcement of 4 economic stimulus packages totaling SGD92.5B (USD66.2B) in quick succession.

South Korea — Land of The Morning Calm

South Korea is the largest and most populous country among the 4 Asian Dragons with 51.3m people. The coronavirus exploded in South Korea in February 2020 with exponentially increasing cases over the following weeks. The situation appeared dire with potential political backlash in store for President Moon Jae-In, as South Korea became the worst-hit country outside China.

Looking at the coronavirus statistics in Table 1, the pandemic crisis was brought under control as the death toll remained relatively low despite a few sudden outbreaks. The number of cases appeared to be stabilizing with 11,629 reported cases by June 2020. The figures attested to South Korean aggressive testing and screening with 873,858 tests and a respectable 18,996 tests/1m pop.

South Korea, like Hong Kong from its Sars experience, had learned the importance of preparedness the hard way after the 2015 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Korean officials’ success in controlling the pandemic stemmed from their early mobilization of resources upon news of the outbreak in China in late 2019. South Korea implemented testing for coronavirus at an uncharted pace. With early detection, effective isolation, and timely treatment, the number of cases was brought under control expeditiously and needless deaths were avoided.

Notably, South Korea’s innovation was a beacon to the world, with many developed nations copying her concept of drive-through test stations, allowing people to be tested without leaving their cars. The table below corroborated South Korea’s successful leadership and response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Taiwan — Modern Formosa

Formosa means “beautiful island” in Portuguese. That was the name given to Taiwan by Portuguese sailors back in the 1950s. From Table 1, Taiwan was the most successful Asian Dragon to control the coronavirus outbreak. Their secret was revealed by Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, “Having learned our lesson before from SARS, as soon as the outbreak began, we adopted a whole-of-government approach.”

While many countries in the world were still debating about whether the virus would reach them, Taiwan activated their State and City Containment Strategy. Safety measures such as the compulsory wearing of masks, thermal temperature scanning, the widespread use of sanitizers, and daily governmental advisories and updates were put in place early. Taiwan also ramped up its production of protective masks and ensured the sufficiency for the entire population.

Taiwan’s phenomenal success was all the more commendable given its close proximity to China where the outbreak first started. Its whole-country approach with full cooperation between government and citizens allowed Taiwan to buck the global trend and registered a growth of 1.54% of its first-quarter GDP, against a forecast of 1.7% before the pandemic.

5 Critical Qualities of Great Leadership

1. Foresight in Crisis Preparedness

Countries that were well prepared through earlier painful experiences were able to contain the coronavirus pandemic much better. Taiwan and Hong Kong which were badly affected by earlier epidemics had formulated effective Epidemic Preparedness Plans to expeditiously contain the future outbreaks. Such leadership foresight obviously paid off for both countries with their incredibly low number of cases and single-digit deaths.

2. Empowerment of A Cohesive Management Team

All the Asian Dragon economies were quick to establish and empower a strong response team. They tackled all the respective key aspects of the crisis well, including thinking through and putting in place an economic recovery plan. The empowerment of a cohesive management team is key to transformational leadership. The Asian Dragons all demonstrated their resilience in the face of a Great-Depression class crisis through leaders who understood the importance of speed and decisiveness of an empowered team.

3. Transparency with Timely Sharing of Vital Information

The leadership of all 4 Asian Dragons addressed the nation regularly and timely with vital information. The transparency with information was effective in reducing the senseless hoarding and confusion that besieged many nations. By empowering the residents with timely information, it allowed effective public-private collaboration to contain the pandemic efficiently.

4. Humbleness in Embracing Mistakes With Responsiveness

Singapore overlooked the danger of local transmission and had to deal with a major outbreak amongst the 300,000 migrant workers who stayed in crowded dormitories. South Korea was likewise complacent in overlooking the danger of local transmission of religious gatherings. However, both countries responded very quickly and decisively with isolation, ramping up of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and partial lockdown to effectively contain the situation. Singapore’s number of cases though high, remained isolated with the migrant workers who were adequately quarantined from the rest of the population. Local transmission outside the migrant group remained low in the single-digit. South Korea and Singapore were able to start the opening-up of their economy.

5. Holistic Approach in Setting The Right Priorities

A common trait in the leadership of all the Asian Dragons was their holistic approach in setting the right priorities. They morally set the top priority as saving lives and went to great lengths for containment and preserving the sanctity of human lives. There was no confusion and mixed messages from the leaders unlike in some countries where the number of cases and deaths were spiraling out of control. Their Health response systems were set up effectively, resulting in the relatively low number of deaths in all the Dragon economies as seen in Table 1.

An important secondary priority was to protect the economy. All the Dragon Economies were quick to announce fiscal stimulus packages to protect the economy. They know the importance of protecting jobs, core industries, and the social fabric of the economies.

F.A.I.T.H. In Transformational Leadership During Crisis

We learned through the experiences of the 4 Asian Dragons that effective leadership, especially in a crisis, must have the following 5 elements of F.A.I.T.H. :

  1. Foresight Through Experience And Research
  2. Active Empowerment of An Ace Team
  3. Involvement of the people with Timely Information Sharing
  4. Transformation of New Knowledge to Quick Response
  5. Having the Interest of Your People Above Self

Use F.A.I.T.H. now to review your organization’s leadership.

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