COVID-19 Crisis and Opportunity – Creating Leaders

By Fariba Latifi

COVID-19 is an unprecedent crisis which has impacted communities all over the world. The crisis is undoubtedly one of the greatest events in the contemporary history of the world with tremendous economic, social, cultural and political consequences. It presents both threats and opportunities.

Wherever There is talk of threats and opportunities, leaders set foot in the field to minimize the impact of adverse and threatening consequences, or even intelligently turn threats into opportunities. They also seek to identify and exploit opportunities in a timely manner. However, leaders’ attitudes and behaviors vary depending on their approaches to opportunities. Here we look at the behavior of the four groups of leaders mentioned above in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and opportunities that lie within it.

Leaders have different perspectives on opportunities and opportunity finding. Considering the different approaches of leaders into opportunity, they can be categorised into four main groups: opportunity-losing leaders, opportunistic leaders, opportunity-seeking leaders and opportunity-creating leaders.

Opportunity-losing leaders

An opportunity losing-leader is one who cannot identify opportunities in the market or, if s/ he identifies them, for some reason cannot execute them in a timely manner. Among the various reasons that prevent opportunity-losing leaders from taking advantage of opportunities in a timely manner are the lack of effort to stay up-to-date and knowledgeable of their industries, new technologies, changes in consumers needs, demographic changes in market, risk aversion or lack of risk management knowledge. These leaders either do not have the vision to see opportunities or they have not learned the knowledge of proper management and implementation of opportunities.

Opportunistic leaders

According to Oxford Reference “opportunistic leaders are those who take advantage of the particular circumstances they find themselves in. They are not concerned with strategy and planning, but instead look for quick fixes to
Fariba current problems.” Opportunistic leaders are those who see and take advantage of existing opportunities. The label “opportunist” usually has negative connotations and the opportunistic people are often regarded as unprincipled and immoral persons taking unfair advantages of opportunities for selfish ends. In this paper opportunistic leaders are referred to those who think only of their own self-interest and can harm others in order to achieve their own personal gain to the point of fraud or form other immoral acts. Therefore, the opportunistic leaders are lurking in crises and turmoil to make windfall profits. Although these leaders try to portray their wrongdoing as a kind of business, their work is nothing but a violation of the rights of others and society.

Opportunity-seeking leaders

While opportunity-seekers see also only the opportunities of the present, but unlike opportunistic leaders, they consider adhering to ethics at all stages of their businesses. The opportunity-seeking leaders carefully monitor the environment for finding the current business opportunities to take advantage of them and make a profit legally and ethically.

Opportunity-creating leaders

An opportunity-creating leader is a leader who has a systemic approach and pursues opportunities with a more comprehensive view. The opportunity-creating leader knows that in order to achieve long-term opportunities, an ecosystem is needed in which opportunities are nurtured and developed. Therefore, the opportunity-creators base their efforts on building and developing an ecosystem in which opportunities grow. Such leaders are farsighted, forward-thinking and holistic and they can see beyond their own benefits. The impact of their results is not limited to the short-term and not only for their own advantage.

Overall, comparing the four groups of leaders mentioned above, the opportunity-losers and opportunists play a negative and destructive role in the society, while the opportunity-seekers and opportunity-creators both play positive and constructive roles in the environment. Also, the first three leaders focus on the short-term present opportunities, while the opportunitycreator looks for future long-term opportunities.

Characteristics of opportunity-creating leaders

The key characteristics of opportunity-creating leaders are as follows:

- Systemic approach

Opportunity-creators have a holistic or systemic approach to dealing with issues and problems. In a systemic approach, an apple is not only the result of an apple tree, but also the result of a wide range of resources and facilities that are properly brought together to create and grow an apple tree; which is a complex composition of fertile soil, suitable climate, high quality seeds, skillful gardening, daily care such as irrigation, fertilization, pruning, pest control and so on.

Opportunity-creating leaders know that the scope of any activity is not limited to a number of subsystems but related to many other parallel systems, as well as to many supersystems. For instance, the activity of an economic unit includes many subsystems such as production, human resources, marketing or information technology departments which pursue a goal in relation to each other. It is also associated with many parallel systems such as suppliers, financial institutions or competitors. And of course, with a more comprehensive look, we see the activity of this economic unit as a subsystem in relation to other supersystems such as the city, country and world.

- Generosity

The opportunity-creating leaders are not closefisted and see the results of their activities beyond personal interests. They know that opportunities are formed at the heart of an opportunity-creating ecosystem, and within such an ecosystem, there are countless other people who benefit from it. Thus, they try to take advantage of the opportunities to provide a suitable ecosystem for the emergence and growth of opportunities so that both they and others can take advantage of the opportunities that arise in it.

- Forward-looking

One of the differences between the perspectives of opportunity-creating leaders and the other three groups is their view of opportunity in terms of time. The first three groups seek the opportunity in the present, but the opportunity-creating leaders do so in future. The opportunity-creating leaders are far-sighted and forward-looking, and in defining opportunities, they have an attitude beyond the present time. These leaders analyze issues beyond today’s realities and look for opportunities far beyond existing ones. They do not look for immediate and short-term opportunities, but plan for long-term and more sustainable ones.

- Adherence to sustainable development

Since opportunity-creating leaders look for opportunities in future and have a holistic approach, they are committed to the principles of sustainable development. These leaders know that a sustainable economic activity is formed by adhering to the sustainable development of society, the country and the world to stablish a WWW (win-win-win) relationship with those around them. In the WWW relationships, the leaders have a tripartite approach and, in their decisions, they consider their personal interests, the interest of the other party, as well as the interests of society, including environmental protection. The opportunity-creators believe that violating the rights and interests of any of the three parties will make it impossible to achieve a long-term opportunity. A leader who ignores the rights and interests of all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers and even competitors (for a fair competition), and violates the rights of society and destroys the environment to achieve a shortterm opportunity, is an opportunistic leader, and clearly cannot be an opportunity-creating one.

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) published a study in 2018 summing up the long-term situation with a telling, five-word title — Labour Shortage: Here to Stay.

Leaders should seize the opportunities to unify the world

In the COVID-19 crisis, opportunistic leaders, as always, hesitate and fail to identify, review and take advantage of opportunities, such that the opportunity is either lost or becomes a threat. For example, considering the physical distancing measures and the closure of educational institutions, there is an opportunity to improve digital literacy of students, instructors and families, and to replace online education with face-to-face training.

The digital literacy is a knowledge that is necessary for living in the present age, and increasing it at the community level will lead to public welfare and the progress of society, the economy and businesses. If this opportunity is not used in a timely manner, not only it will be lost, but it will also become a threat and hinder the education of young people and increase illiteracy rates. Another example is the opportunity to increase the health literacy and public health in the community, which, if lost again, could become a threat and lead to the further spread of COVID-19. Also, opportunities to enhance environmental protection or solve traffic problems in large cities, if not identified, planned and implemented in time, are other examples of opportunity-losing.

At the same time, in the context of COVID-19 crisis the opportunists, by engaging in immoral acts such as hoarding urgently needed medical supplies and selling them at inflated prices are profiting from the situation. For example, “according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice, Baruch Feldheim, 43, had allegedly agreed to sell approximately 1,000 N95 masks to a doctor for US$12,000 on March 18. The justice department stated the price was marked up nearly 700 per cent. Authorities say a doctor was directed to an auto shop in New Jersey, where the doctor said Feldheim had enough hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, chemical cleaning agents and surgical supplies to outfit an entire hospital.” (CTV News, April 2, 2020). Although opportunity-seeking leaders also seek present opportunities, their adherence to ethical principles keep them away from immoral behaviors of opportunists. Instead, for instance, due to a shortage of masks, gowns, gloves, and other personal protective equipment, a toy manufacturer identifies an opportunity to quickly change its product line to make medical supplies. According to Joan Verdon (Forbes, Mar 26, 2020) Little Tikes toy factory in Ohio retooled to produce ventilator valves and goggles for hospitals. Crazy Aaron’s is another toy company which is now making sanitizer. Or a toy design firm, in Brooklyn, New York, is using its 3-D printers to produce ventilator valves, face masks and shields for hospitals. In Canada, according to Darren Calabrese, Nova Scotia-based undergarment manufacturer Stanfield’s Ltd. retooled to produce protective gowns for front-line health-care workers in the fight against COVID-19. (The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2020)

Also, due to the urgent need of the community for ventilators, some automotive manufacturing leaders identify opportunities to respond to this need with a slight change along their production lines. For instance, the engineers in Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company, in Kitchener, Ontario, have retooled to make plastic face shields needed for health care workers. (Nick Purdon, CBC News, May 03, 2020) Responding to the Government of Canada’s call to action, some cosmetics manufacturers have also sought the opportunity to produce hand-sanitizers. According to Maddison Glendinning (Fashion Magazine, July 23, 2020), six Canadian beauty brands, Lotus Aroma, Etiket, Province Apothecary, Nudestix and The Green Beaver Company, are among these opportunity seekers.

However, based on the characteristics of opportunity-creating leaders, the approaches of opportunity-creating leaders to the pandemic are completely different. They know that the emergence of the new Coronavirus and the global challenges with crises such as the one that the world is facing today are neither the first nor the last. Human being has always been and will continue to be at the risk of emerging infectious diseases and the threats of pathogens such as deadly viruses and bacteria. Today’s generation is indebted to the foresight and forward-thinking of opportunity-creating leaders who have stood up to those threats with the establishment of national and international organizations such as the World Health Organization.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a remarkable today’s example which has all the four mentioned characteristics of an opportunity-creating leadership. One of the first investment of the Gates foundation was to an organization called Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. According to Bill Gates: “Since 2000, Gavi and partners have immunized more than 760 million children, saving over 13 million lives. And now, Gavi has a new effort underway to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for lower-income countries as soon as they are available.” (The Optimist, gatescoundation.org) Commenting on the Coronavirus Global Response Summit, Melinda Gates has also stated that “we’ll finally be able to attack this virus in the way it is attacking us – globally. Our foundation is proud to support this critical work”. (Press Releases, gatescoundation. org)

Opportunity-creators are putting their efforts into develop an opportunity-creating ecosystem that can meet the needs of today’s crisis and similar global crises in the long run. Creating the ecosystem requires the establishment and development of research centers and scientific institutions that discover and manufacture vaccines and obtain drugs to treat emerging diseases. In this ecosystem, there is a need for high-tech institutions to achieve and develop new technologies providing solutions for collective lives, work, education and travel in the context of physical distancing.

Cisco with its Webex Meetings and Webex Teams, Google with its Google’s G Suite platform, Microsoft with its Microsoft 365 is Microsoft’s productivity solutions, Zoho with its Zoho Remotely, and Zoom with its Zoom Meetings are good examples of high-tech companies providing top work from home services. Also, while according to UNESCO “some 1 billion students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak”, several Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Blackboard, Moodle, Google for Education, Canvas, Schoology and many more are facilitating distance learning.

The ecosystem also needs appropriate supporting foundations like financial, manufacturing, healthcare institutions and so on. And, of course, the systemic approach of opportunity-creating leaders warns them that all of these requires communication, cooperation and collaborative assistance of all people around the world. Because they have seen and know that although we have been forced to physically distance ourselves from each other in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, being living in an open system, we cannot put up fences around our cities and countries and live without each other.

Wrapping up

The world has become a global village, but many people in this village still believe in the existence of a closed system in the real world (it may only be created in labs). Some people in the global village still believe that they can do anything they want in their home without worrying about the impact of their actions on the residents of other houses and the whole village. But perhaps once again the global COVID-19 crisis will make it clear to the people that there is no such thing as a closed system in the world. Of course, there have been many incidents in the past that have nullified this attitude, for instance, the issue of damage to the ozone layer in one country and its global impact on the people all around the world. These events and human experiences are reminiscent of the message in the famous poem “Bani Adam (Adam’s children)” by Saadi, an Iranian Poet, which is inscribed on a large hand-made carpet in the United Nations building in New York.

“Human beings are members of a whole (Adam’s children are limbs of one body), since in their creation they are of one essence. When the conditions of the time bring a member (limb) to pain, the other members (limbs) will suffer from discomfort. You, who are indifferent to the misery of others, it is not fitting that they should call you a human being.”

Saadi’s poetry may be a reminder that future opportunity-creating leaders of the world need to think globally and act globally.

Fariba Latifi (Ph.D.), is a Canadian professor, consultant and researcher in the field of Business and Management.

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