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What Marc Van Ranst can teach us about leadership

Leadership COVID-19

Implicit Leadership Theory to the rescue.

I couldn’t help laughing at the picture of Marc Van Ranst (one of the leading Belgian virologists who is advising the Belgian government during the coronavirus crisis) in a Superman suit when I was emptying my letter box. The neighbor (keeping 1.5 meters away) noticed: "We are sure lucky to have him. Now there’s a real leader." I nodded in agreement. But afterwards I asked myself: Why do we find him so strong these days? Why do we think of hím as a leader?

Is it because of his great charisma? Charisma is not exactly the first thing that comes to my mind when seeing this worn out guy in yet another cozy sweatshirt. Is it because of his innate leadership qualities? If so, those qualities were nowhere to be seen when he came under heavy criticism for some of his statements a few years ago. Or is it because of his authenticity? I think Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès also comes across as very "true to herself", and yet, that does not seem to work for her.

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Science to the rescue: We think of Marc Van Ranst as a leader because he responds to the implicit image that many of us have today about how a leader should be (Implicit Leadership Theory; Eden & Leviathan, 2005). A leader today apparently needs to be clear. Marc explains things in such a way that his 11-year-old son can understand them. A leader today needs to be credible. Marc stays close to his expertise and says “I don’t know” when he doesn’t know the answer. A leader today needs to be honest. When it turns out, in hindsight, that he has made a mistake, Marc admits it, for instance when the schools were locked down (too quickly). And a leader today should not take him/herself too seriously. Marc makes fun of his own choice of sweatshirts.

When Marc tries to exert influence and asks us, for instance, to keep our distance, we do so. In other words:

When Marc claims leadership, we grant him leadership. Why? Because he displays those characteristics that we today–implicitly and unconsciously–attribute to "a real leader".

And that opens up possibilities.

For leaders who, in these times of working from home and social distancing, try to manage their team members in the best possible way.

  • Take some time to prepare your messages. Send one clear email at 4 p.m. rather than having a video call at 2 p.m., followed by an additional clarifying email at 3 p.m., a correction by phone at 3.30 p.m. and finally a summary of where we stand at 4 p.m.
  • If you don’t know, just say so. Your team members are looking to you for answers and clarity, but it is okay to disappoint them from time to time and to admit that you don't know either. These are confusing times for everyone.
  • Dare to adjust previous agreements. That daily check-in with your team may have seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago, but as it turns out, a weekly check-in may be more than enough.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously. It is okay if your youngest child comes into your room singing at the top of his voice while you are about to present the results. Or if your team members are handling digital communication a lot faster than you.

And maybe this implicit leadership theory also offers perspectives for a new generation of politicians. If we all continue to stand by those people who are clear, but who are not afraid to admit that they don't know or that they have made a mistake and who don’t take themselves too seriously, this could very well herald a new era in politics.

- Dr Kathleen Vangronsvelt, senior researcher Enabling Human Impact

Get in touch

Do you want to contact the author Kathleen Van Gronsvelt? Or do you have a question? Let her know via Kathleen.Vangronsvelt@ams.ac.be.

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