On the evening of March 22 when hundreds of thousands of Indians blew conch-shells (and beat utensils and clapped) from their balconies and lawns to show solidarity with its medical workers at the frontline of fighting Covid-19, some of the cultural importance of the gesture was lost on most people outside the country.
Blowing the conch-shell is highly auspicious in India. It is blown in millions of homes across the country during evening prayers every day but it is, legendarily, also a sign of the announcement of battle. The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is centred around the vast battle of Kurukshetra which begins with key dramatis personae including the god avatar Krishna blowing unique conches (his is called the Panchjanya). So, the blowing of conches has a deep significance in Indian culture with the fight against impossible odds—in this case a deadly virus.
The exercise of noisy appreciation from the safety of home quarantine came after a personal televised appeal of the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The use of conch-shells before most of India went on lockdown was, to say the least, a sign. It was also the first of the many ideas of leadership that have clearly emerged during this historic crisis.
The first idea is that any response to a crisis must begin with communication but not just any communication, though.
Communication that has cultural context.
Perhaps the least understood aspect of this global pandemic is that it is ‘global’ in nature, and a vaccine, when it arrives, will also be applicable everywhere. The vital lesson it has taught us again is how our creative solutions must be local.
Analysts are divided in camps of those who say that this pandemic marks the end of globalisation and a return, much needed, to a time when virtues of nationalism must take precedence (after all for most of the world, the virus did travel from a different country, and using the pathways of globalisation, so how could it be wrong to further strengthen borders? Aren’t we seeing the virtues of sealing of borders to contain it?). While, others argue, with equal fervour, that this crisis more than ever proves that our greatest challenges respect no borders and no distinction between nationality or race.
But the truth is perhaps more complicated. What this crisis seems to be teaching us is not an easy choice between embracing the global or enforcing the local but that all that is global simultaneously has a local manifestation. It is only by understanding and adopting the local manifestation that we can truly, and honestly, respond to the global.
While the cause and effect of the Coronavirus is the same everywhere—a flu-like disease but much deadlier—its consequences vary, and therefore its responses need to vary too.
If in China, it has raised grave questions about its notorious animal markets, in India, the need of the hour is ensuring essential supplies to the informal sector including daily wage earners.
The crisis of the Coronavirus is teaching us that leadership is about simultaneously considering the localised impact of the global.
The distinction between the two is not erased—as in our earlier ‘flat world’ illusion—but it is respectfully emphasised.
The pandemic also has a vital lesson to teach in egalitarianism.
In a world plagued by income inequality, it is showing us that true leadership can only emerge if we consider, consistently, our deepest commonality. This breaks a common fallacy in the modern business—that technology and automation can resolve (and eliminate) any human problems of labour. It is emphasising that one thing that is easy to forget—businesses need customers. And if the ecosystem is brutally damaged, no matter how automated, how artificial intelligence (AI)-ready your business is, its success is in peril without customers.
Man cannot live by Netflix alone.
One of the most critical questions that business leadership will face once the Coronavirus crisis is over is—what will be the future of consumption?
If nothing else, this crisis has confronted us with the question that we were trying to cover up with Marie Kondo. Mere tidying is the band-aid to the deeper illness of our age—excessive consumption in a world still plagued with want.
We must accept that as the global lockdown due to the Coronavirus spreads, many are being confronted not only with the psychosomatic disorders of their lives but also the ‘stuff’ that they have accumulated in their homes.
This is a moment of a global reconsideration of consumption—how much do we really need? Why do we need what we need? The scariest prospect for a business leader today is that we do not really know what happens to consumption—especially in non-essential goods and services—from this point. Smart business leaders would, then, be contemplating with care how to reimagine the future of their businesses in a world where ‘growth’ and ‘consumption’ does not quite match assessments and notions of the past. Business leadership would be severely tested in the months and years to come to accommodate this new era of consumption.
This brings me to the final lesson of leadership from the Covid-19 pandemic—the art of very difficult tasks. This is exemplified in a sense by the announcement of the Indian government that the country will go into a 21-day lockdown. This is the biggest ever quarantine (1.3 billion people) in history, and not easy in a country where movement of goods and services face challenges even in normal circumstances, and where most people are in informal jobs.
But this is not only necessary, it is urgent. Such dramatic measures are needed if the virus is to be contained (imagine a mass outbreak among more than a billion people). In a sense India is doing what even America is failing to do.
The task of taking unprecedented measures is therefore the final lesson from the Coronavirus pandemic to business leaders.
It shows without doubt that the world to come would be very different from anything businesses have faced in the past, and it is time to leave past assumptions behind, even if it means taking drastic steps.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award winning author.