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COVID-19 Impact: How has leadership in APAC performed?

James Rushworth, Managing Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, considers whether leadership in APAC has been effective in responding to the crisis.

We all know this pandemic is different to anything the world has faced in living memory. Record levels of disruption have meant employers are reacting at record pace. Incredibly, “business as usual” transformed overnight. Agility is necessary in business. A company’s ability to be nimble, through strong leadership, is an indicator of its success. Leadership at nearly all firms have already taken proactive measures, such as having all or some staff working from home or remotely, or offering flexible time in the office, to protect their staff and to contain the spread of COVID-19.

But has leadership been as effective as it can be? Has it stepped up? 

In April we conducted a survey on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on our working lives in Asia Pacific. In all, 2,685 people filled in the survey, ensuring a robust data set. The majority of people who responded were based in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia. For a summary of who filled in the survey click here.

Based on our evidence it suggests many leaders, having to perform their roles under challenging circumstances, seem to be struggling. 

When asked “How would you rate your leadership's effectiveness with respect to dealing with COVID-19 within your organisation?” 70% and 68% said ‘adequate’ to ‘weak’ in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. Conversely, 65% of Australian respondents felt it was ‘excellent’, with only 3% saying it was ‘weak’. China was the highest in Asia at 44% stating ‘excellent’, and Singapore the least positive with over 14% saying ‘weak’.

By Country: How would you rate your leadership's effectiveness with respect to dealing with COVID-19 within your organisation?

Why is this? 

Asia might have fared less well as it was the first to experience the crisis and leaders may have been, through no fault of their own, slow to respond with clear, effective measures.

However, maintaining and building morale, reducing politics and fostering creativity has regularly been flagged as a challenge for leaders in Asia. Areas which undoubtedly require soft skills, such as communication, the ability to influence, engage and build a collaborative culture are key to leadership effectiveness.

We then went on to ask “How has the response by your leadership to the COVID-19 crisis affected your levels of stress?”

Singapore and China respondents felt the most impacted, with 46% and 44% respectively, saying their levels of stress had increased. This is countered by both Hong Kong and Australia where more said there had been no change, and increases in stress levels were less acute. 

By Country: How has the response by your leadership to the COVID-19 crisis affected your levels of stress?

Leadership, generally, shouldn't be unnecessarily increasing people's stress levels, so the results aren't great in terms of its performance.

From a generational perspective, there were slight differences. Our survey findings suggest that Baby Boomers are the most resilient with 51% saying there had been no change in stress levels, and 38% stating that their stress levels had increased.  Generation Y however, was at the other end with 43% saying stress levels had gone up, with Generation X in the middle. 

However, if stress levels are increasing or remaining the same, it brings to question why leadership has not been able to alleviate or reduce the stress that has come with this trying circumstance. What is clear is that leaders will have to ensure they are effective at engaging and retaining people with different wants and needs.

Our findings suggest leaders still need to step up further to minimise stress and prove more effective in leading during crises. It takes longer to build your employer brand than it does to damage it, and times like these call for empathy, clarity of communication, better engagement and more mindful leadership. 

The world has seen its fair share of crises over the years and they’ve all had an impact on the global economy. COVID-19 is the latest and, although unprecedented, it is temporary – we just don’t know for how long. Like all other black swan events that have tested us in the past, it too, will pass. Leaders, though, need to be better equipped to deal with them. 

Read more from our COVID-19 Impact series: 


James Rushworth, Managing Director, Profile, A WilsonHCG Company


May 2020