Why placebo leadership is need of the hour

Published: July 13, 2020 3:35 AM

Empathy is essential for competent leadership; without empathy, one cannot build or nurture followers.

Ratan Tata is well known for his philanthropy, shared the note from his charitable organisation.Ratan Tata is well known for his philanthropy, shared the note from his charitable organisation.

By Vidya Hattangadi

The brain is the most powerful tool we possess. It can do positive as well as negative wonders. The placebo effect is defined as a phenomenon that influences beneficially in illnesses, failures, despair, etc. It is attributable to the brain-mind responses to stimuli we receive from some people or some objects in our life. The placebo effect is more famous in the medical context; it is a substance with no known medical effects, such as sterile water, saline solution or a sugar pill, or alternative therapies such as reiki or pranic healing. People follow some gurus and some follow soothsayers because they get the placebo effect.

Placebo reduces negative emotions, which, in turn, decrease pain, anxiety and despair. I am talking here about placebo leadership. Leadership is not an easy task; it doesn’t happen just by itself. Placebo leaders are empathetic. Empathetic leaders understand the needs of others; they are aware of people’s feelings.

Nelson Mandela was the first democratically-elected President of South Africa. He was the face and leader of the anti-apartheid movement, relentlessly fighting against racial discrimination all his life. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, for conspiring to overthrow the state, following the Rivonia Trial. His tremendous focus, determination and will dismantled apartheid; Mandela come out as a champion and led his country into having an equal and free future. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. I call Nelson Mandela a placebo leader.

Placebo leaders make encouraging impact on their people. They maintain communication and show up during periods of uncertainty. Even when there is not much to say, keeping a regular pulse of communication, especially face to face, provides reassurance and consistency. Visibility of leaders in crucial times is comforting. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been observed that women-led countries have tackled the pandemic much better than many others. Seven countries where women are heading the nations have tackled Covid-19 tactfully. Their empathetic leadership has cautiously tackled the situation. These seven countries have the least number of casualties.

  • Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, could practically wipe out Covid-19 by the end of May 2020. She gives credit to the spirit and discipline followed by her citizens.
  • Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has far lower death rates than most other European nations.
  • Sanna Marin, the young Prime Minister all of 34, of Finland governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, and the country has had fewer than 10% as many deaths as compared to the neighbouring Sweden.
  • Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the coronavirus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown.
  • Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland, successfully brought down the death rate by Covid-19 in Iceland.
  • In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg is using technology to the fullest to track isolated patients; now, patients don’t feel lonely.
  • The Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, closed her country’s borders on March 13. A few days later she closed kindergartens, schools and universities, and also banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Her decisiveness appears to have spared Denmark the worst of the pandemic: its death toll is in just three digits and the number of patients being treated in hospitals for Covid-19 is falling drastically.
    Placebo modulates emotions via verbal information.

The worst effects are seen in such times when rumour mills start spreading alarming information. But when people get the chance to ask questions themselves to find out what points their leaders are making, when they are asked how they are feeling, and when they get regular information and hard facts from government agencies, they feel comfortable. Possibly the biggest impact of sustained communication is on trust, which is a crucial commodity during any change.

I call Ratan Tata also a placebo leader. The 82-year-old head of Tata Trusts donated a massive sum of Rs 500 crore for fighting Covid-19, calling it “one of the toughest challenges that the human race will face.” Ratan Tata is well known for his philanthropy, shared the note from his charitable organisation. He captioned the post, “Tata Trusts and Tata group companies have in the past raised to the needs of the nation. At this moment, the need of the hour is greater than any other time.” On November 26, 2008, in a series of attacks in Mumbai, when the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was attacked, destroying the interiors, killing of guests, including the destruction of the hotel’s roof in the shootout, it’s worth a mention that Ratan Tata went all out to care for each and every employee of the hotel to help them recoup from the shock. All categories of employees including those who had completed even one day as a casual employee were treated during the time the hotel was closed. During that time, salaries were sent by money orders. Employees were treated like family members.

I get tired of hearing about soft skills as the most important required for effective leadership. Please note that the US Army Leadership Field Manual is one of the best sources on leadership, and it insists repeatedly that empathy is essential for competent leadership. Without empathy, one cannot build or nurture followers. Devoid of compassion, one cannot inspire followers or elicit loyalty. Empathy is most essential in negotiations of any kind.

The author is a management thinker and blogger

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