Coronavirus: A Historic Opportunity

This article was originally posted on medium by Alex T. Steffen

We are in a historic moment to reset our societal and leadership values, and emerge as a stronger species, and possibly avoid major issues that can really cripple us.

It is the middle of March 2020. The Corona crisis is hitting the world. The leadership in most developed countries is struggling and paralysed. The weaknesses of our economic and globalised system are revealed: crisis response systems, international collaboration, and effective communication all fail at once.

This is not an article about the status quo, it is not about telling leaders or citizens what to do now. It is an impulse for the possible redesign of our political and economic system. It is an invitation for business leaders and proactive citizens to form a global movement to shape a world we love living in.

This is an article about an opportunity that could be more promising than the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, the Arab Spring in 2013, and the Fridays for Future Movement in 2019. We’ll explore these questions:

What leadership weaknesses have the events around the Coronavirus revealed? How can the we see the adversity we’re experiencing as a tremendous opportunity? Why have change makers like Leonardo di Caprio, the UN’s voice in the environmental movement, and Greta Thunberg, a near Nobel-Prize laureate, been largely ineffective leaders? Finally we’ll discover the “Change Circle”, a simple tool to make effective systemic change happen.

We stand at a historical crossroads. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to update the way we govern our societies and do business. This is our rare chance to cure a sick system.


Systemic Weaknesses Are Revealed
In the first week of March, two full months after the Coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China, I was oblivious to and skeptical about the global implications. Then the facts hit me. Focusing my attention on mathematical models, I learned why exponential growth means trouble. I was shocked to see that many nations’ healthcare systems were heading towards total failure. Fast action was indispensable.

When I decided to check with friends and colleagues, I learned that few people had taken the time to learn about the worrisome data. All over the world, most people were still in one of two camps, either the patronizing-mocking camp (“Look at this idiot wearing a face mask, how ridiculous!”) or paralyzed and fear-mongering (“This virus will kill us all!!”).

I felt that neither perspective would be helpful in this rapidly escalating situation. What you need in crisis is a cool-headed, fact-based leadership and great communication skills. Most people, however, gave me this strange feeling that I was overreacting.

I realized how hard it can be to be a leader.

Granted, humans find exponential growth really difficult to comprehend. Dr. Albert Bartlett once said: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

A Leadership Vacuum
In early 2020, we polled 34 business leaders on the biggest challenges they face in a changing world. Their top three responses correlate with the current observations:

1. Rising complexity -> makes predictions harder
2. Leadership vacuum -> leaders with a cool-headed approach are rare
3. Outdated education -> this system is not being challenged

The risk we were facing at the outbreak of the Corona crisis was a leadership vacuum. In other words a weak leadership system that is neither able to respond nor renew itself quickly, as discussed by leadership expert Elizabeth Lyle in her TEDx talk .

This explains why it took our elected leaders, with millions of Dollars for research and access to the best epidemiology experts on the planet, weeks to implement measures that could successfully contain the virus. The situation required micro leaders like Thomas Pueyo, who wrote this Medium Article, to spread awareness and get leaders to act.

Thomas demonstrates scientifically, that every day counts. It wasn’t the travel bans per se, which almost every leadership started enforcing reluctantly, then hastily. It was simple social distancing measures, that had the highest effect both for saving lives and preserving economic capabilities in the long term. In other words the unpopular demand for

1. Businesses working from home
2. Mass events being stopped
3. Rigid self-quarantine

Few leaders communicated these plausibly. This Washington Post article further explains the huge advantages of strict social distancing.

If you’re experiencing a loss of trust in established political and economic structures, you’re not alone. Asking around in my network, I learned that, this lack of leadership confused many citizens more than the pandemic itself. To see Donald Trump make false statements, blame others, and fail to react adequately in the face of a crisis, has become the norm. But other world leaders have lost their bearings, too. They needed the dramatic failure of Italy’s healthcare system, to wake up to reality.

On top of that, Taiwan, a democratic nation that did act fast, produced reliable data that demonstrated the benefits of fast action. Taiwan’s vice president Chen Chien-jen is a respected epidemiologist. Why did the US and European administrations ignore this information?

The data was available, even for the masses. Netflix has a TV series called “Pandemic”, in which experts in disease preparedness explain to non-experts the importance of implementing social isolation as early as possible, to contain the virus.

With a painfully long delay, governments ended up adopting stricter social distancing measures. Because every day counts, the population is paying the price of that delay. Too many people are dying, the vast majority of businesses are struggling, small businesses have to shut down, and employees are being laid off. It didn’t have to be that way.

I do not intend to depress you with my words. There’s enough tragedy already. In fact, I’ll publish a separate post on the upsides of the Corona pandemic, according to over 30 leaders we polled in the past week. The article in front of you is written to underline the importance of renewing the system that led us here.


Our Kenshō Moment
In Japanese culture there’s a simplified description of the two ways humans grow: Satori (悟り, japanese for “comprehension”) moments or Kenshō moments (見性, japanese for seeing into one’s true nature”). See the graph below. Satori moments describe the intentional growth rooted in insights. An adaptive mind is open to necessary changes and grows continuously.

On the other side, a person unable to adapt to a changing future, tends to grow by Kensho moments. What that means: the person experiences adversity. This temporary pain can be seen as a creative destruction, which fuels the drive to rebuild the outdated version of yourself. An initial setback is followed by growth.

And that’s what’s happening to us thanks to the Corona pandemic. We have ignored the signs to rethink our model of living. Subsequently, the virus outbreak has successfully pushed us into a Kensho moment. Our economic and societal design is experiencing a stress test which it is sure to fail. Now, we’re facing the type of adversity that can lead to growth.

Our achilles heel is no longer concealed.

In a March interview, trends expert Li Edelcort said: “We need to make draconian changes to the way we live, travel, consume and entertain. There is no way we can continue to produce as many goods and the many choices we have grown accustomed to. The debilitating mass of information about nothing at all has numbed our culture.

But somehow the human psyche is {…} waiting and biding our time while we are doing business as usual. The sudden stop on all of this by the virus takes decisionmaking out of our hands and will just slow things down to another, frightful pace in the beginning. And this is where I am hopeful for: Another and better system to be put in place with more respect for human labour and conditions.”

This is not about the ecology alone. We now have a tremendous opportunity to treat this global crisis as a wakeup call. An impetus for drastically adapting the system. We might not get this type of opportunity in another generation. What we may well get within the next generation is a crisis that will hit us harder than anything we’ve seen since WWII.

Now, we’re facing the type of adversity that can lead to growth.

In a few weeks, we’ll hopefully have overcome the biggest impact of the Coronavirus. Then, life as we know it might return to our homes, offices and schools — for better or worse. We’ve seen it after the Arab Spring died down. We’ve seen it after the economic crisis of 2008. Life bounced back and the system remained unchanged. Both times, we’ve seen how major opportunities for progress passed us by.

The Corona crisis demonstrates three dangerous weaknesses in our system:

1. A leadership vacuum : the rules of the game have changed. In a sudden crisis, our leaders try to tackle new problems with old strategies. They take a knife to a gunfight.

2. A bloated government apparatus: even though data became available, the slow, uncoordinated decision making process delayed effective action.

3. A weak “change muscle”: we’re unable to anticipate and unwilling to begin change. We’re like hobbits in the shire. Reality looks very different inside a bubble.

Sensitized Elites: A Rare Opportunity

If we risk a glimpse into the history books, it becomes apparent, that past crises did very little to change the way we operate as a society. This Washington Post article demonstrates that even though crises have spurred the largest global greenhouse emissions drops, those reductions were insignificant and emissions continued climbing soon after.

Why, then, should the Corona pandemic yield any potential for change? Why should we mobilize now? Let me explain. In most crises, the elites are spared. This creates a situation economists call “agency dilemma.” For example, an elected official (the “agent” ) can make a decision that impacts citizens (the “principal” ) even though the agent is impacted differently. The elites don’t feel the burden created by their policies. According to some experts, this is one of the reasons why we’ve made so little progress with climate change.

In most crises, the elites are spared. This time it’s different.

What’s different this time, is that the leaders themselves are directly affected. The virus doesn’t spare the politicians or the famous. WWII, had made life unsafe and unpredictable, even for the elites. A massive change to the system was implemented rapidly. The United Nations were formed as a means to increase global collaboration and prevent nationalist movements.

And wouldn’t you know it, the road to change is being paved again. The effect of the Corona pandemic on human behaviour is already visible. Satellite imagery shows a radical reduction in NO2 emissions in China during the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Experts from the guardian point out that over the long term, the positive effect on climate change could reverse. For now, this emissions reduction is painting a clear picture.

After the virus spread rapidly, a state of national emergency has been declared in the US and other countries. The elites have realized they aren’t safe. Our achilles heel is no longer concealed.

As of this writing, we’re still battling the immediate effects of the Coronavirus. Before focusing on the bigger picture, most of us have to handle the implications of the virus on our lives. We have to build immunity, care for others, and assess and mitigate risks on our businesses, just to name a few.

The good news: we are beginning to see a renaissance of human virtues. People supporting underprivileged groups, social entrepreneurship, and grassroots movements are emerging every day. Once the effects on our personal and professional lives have been mitigated, stepping up becomes vital.

We are beginning to see a renaissance of human virtues.

Change Circle: How Great Leaders Begin Change
In order to improve our effectiveness to make a change, let’s first analyze what often makes protests die down and be forgotten.

If you analyze the communication style of ineffective activists, you observe that they usually begin with the state of the world itself. Their narrative: “Look at the tragic state of the world.” Then, they work backwards by trying to convince other people of their solution. “You have to consume less.” Most of the time, their black and white mindset is oblivious to personal preferences and priorities. “If you don’t care about climate change you’re a bad person.”

A few decades into the climate crisis, neither Leonardo di Caprio, with his backing from the UN, nor Greta Thunberg, the almost-Nobel Peace Prize laureate and creator of Fridays for Future movement could get the world to reduce their CO2 emissions. They are trying to adapt the world to their own ideal world view. Compare below graphic (red line).

Their approach creates resistance and alienates potential partners far too many times. There’s even a word for this: “compassion fatigue.” Getting through to a person using this approach requires a tremendous force. Is it any surprise, then, that this strategy is very ineffective? The last thing these activists change is their own approach.

Those who create tomorrow don’t begin changing the world, they begin changing the self.

Effective change makers turn that practice on its head. Let me show you how.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King went on stage to deliver a speech that would transform the world. King didn’t invent the civil rights movement. Neither was he the only black activist. Nevertheless, ⅓ of the 250,000 people attending his I have a Dream speech were white. What made King so effective? Let’s look at the three core factors.

First, what preceded King’s speech was the murder of Medgar Evers, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by white racists. This wakeup call swept a quarter million people to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Citizens from all walks of life were appalled and ready to stand up for change.

Second, what most people don’t know is that according to William C. Sullivan from the FBI, King’s “ability to influence large masses of {black people}” made him “a danger to national security.” Sullivan classified King a main enemy to the United States. King had successfully sensitized the elites.

Third, and most importantly, King, with his great communication skills was able to convey that his dream of changing the civil rights situation started with himself. “He didn’t say I want you to have my dream…” Instead, he inspired people to have his dream.

What can we learn from King’s speech? Those who create tomorrow don’t begin changing the world, they begin changing the self. I call it the Micheal Jackson way (“Starting with the man in the mirror”), explained by the green line in the “Change Circle” and the following steps.

1. Martin Luther King demonstrates that leadership is built on vulnerability. If you want to begin shaping the world, you start by taking personal ownership and demonstrating willingness to adapt yourself for the bigger goal. This is what people’s trust is built on.

2. As people start to change their behaviour you begin to create a small movement. The first domino has fallen and your influence increases.

3. That ripple effect only needs to spread to around 16% of a population (for more information, see the book “Crossing The Chasm” by Jeoffrey A Moore) until it has become an irreversible trend that can actually shape our future world.

We stand at a historical crossroads. This is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to update the way we govern and do business. This is our rare chance to cure a sick system. Some people even call it the end of capitalism as we know it.

I invite you to begin by asking yourself what is your own compass of values and how it differs from the current reality you experience. You may want to google stakeholder capitalism vs. shareholder capitalism. Below, I have listed the qualities that make a great leader in my opinion.

Leadership Qualities of Those Who Create Tomorrow
1. Courageous: taking a long-term stance and a readiness for renewal
2. Awake: Being ahead of the curve requires data-based decision making
3. Kind & Confident: in possession of preeminent communication skills

Curing a Sick System
Let’s look at an example of successful curing of a sick system. In 2002, Frank van Massenhove became head of the Belgian Ministry of Social Affairs. What he found was a textbook public office: five levels of hierarchy, low employee retention and productivity, low attractiveness for highly skilled talent, high costs and high burnout rates. In short: no place of innovation and no place for a thriving workforce.

By applying five simple steps, he transformed the ministry into a showcase organization. First, he reduced the hierarchy levels from five to two. In the second step, he made his ministry virtually paperless, established flexible working hours and granted all employees a budget of ten percent for innovation projects.

Third, he created a role called “Absurdistan.” Their responsibility was to find out where and how one could improve previously cumbersome ways of working. Fourth, work was measured by outcome rather than attendance. In the fifth step, a large part of the meetings was abolished, which saved everybody time and nerves.

The overall result? Employee retention, productivity and customer satisfaction all increased drastically, while costs have dropped significantly. Operational decisions are made in the team. 93 percent of applicants now want to work in van Massenhove’s division, formerly it was 18 percent. Low-skilled employees account for only two percent of the workforce, initially it was 30 percent. This is a fabulous example of how de-bureaucratization and implementation of holistic strategies are creating success stories.

Psychologists agree that positive action requires four pillars. You need to

1. Know what to do and how to do it
2. Know that it will work
3. See the value in your creation
4. Get support from your community

Three Action Steps to Create Tomorrow
1. Claim Creative Autonomy: step up and make your leaders aware of design flaws that have led to the situation you’re trying to change. Convince superiors by collecting data that underpins the argument or changes you want to defend. Design and sign petitions like that of Kevin Adler to break bureaucracy and the agency dilemma.

2. Train Your “Change Muscle”: demonstrate courage and do something out of your comfort zone every day. Be sure to create a sense of urgency among seniors who operate shortsightedly. Identify and network with other changemakers around you, even across divisions. Create circles to discuss and plan improvements.

3. Develop Small Wins: practice habits that reflect your world view and proactively shape the world around you. Use the Change Circle as a tool to develop your storytelling and reasoning skills so you become an effective change maker like Martin Luther King.

By doing the above you will evolve as a leader, turn your vision into a movement, and start shaping the world around you.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.

To receive more ideas, download our free paper 6 Ways To Thrive In a Changing World on

Note from the author: I’m not a native English speaker. My personal thanks go to my editors Christy Renee and Anita Bodnar.

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