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COVID-19 created the perfect leadership experiment. How did Norway end up schooling the USA?

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

The pandemic created an unprecedented experiment by establishing a clear dependent variable to measure leadership performance for every country, COVID mortality rates adjusted by population. At the beginning of the pandemic, a group of distinguished health experts gathered to rank hundreds of countries based on their pandemic readiness. The US was ranked 1st and Norway 16th. Yet based on COVID mortality rates, the rankings were reversed with Norway 1st and the US 16th. (The US had just over 3,000 COVID mortalities per million while Norway had just over 500. The US had six times more mortalities per million than Norway). Norway’s response to COVID demonstrated a unique approach to leadership—one that prioritized responsive decision-making and emphasized cooperation across multiple perspectives.

As the pandemic began, Norway created a leadership group consisting of doctors, economists, and military leaders called the Koronakommisjonen. Their mission was to examine what decisions were made, what other decisions could have been made, and what decisions should have been made. While they initially locked down, Norway quickly opened back up and began to assess how much risk should be taken at each phase of the pandemic. They did not pretend to know more than they did and were transparent about the uncertainties, disagreements, and dilemmas. Importantly, they recognized that different segments of society could have differing ideas about what was extremely important in a continuously evolving situation. This degree of humility and transparency created a high level of trust with the public to follow the recommendations even as they evolved.

What lessons can we learn from Norway’s leaders?

1. Don’t pretend to know more than you do as it actually increases your leadership power and trustworthiness. Communicate openly about uncertainties and differing ways of approaching decisions. Become more humble and honest.

2. Be willing to acknowledge weaknesses. The Norwegians acknowledged the evidence for closing down schools was weak, but explained it could be a reasonable precaution at that moment in time. This allowed for more flexibility and cooperation when the policy needed readjustment. Become more vulnerable and transparent.

3. Don’t bullshit. Instead of projecting overconfidence in their answers, the Norwegian leaders admitted these were hard questions to answer. They welcomed criticism and reflection, which increased trust. Become more courageous. Admit what you know and don’t know. Admit that you may be wrong but will work to get it right.

4. Don’t shame others into submission. Unlike other nations’ leaders, the Norwegians acted less authoritatively, which made them more effective. As we know from family systems theory, authoritarian parents that rely on shame to control will create rebellious children that act out and resent authority. Shaming has never changed behavior in a meaningful or permanent way. Become more respectful of others. Allow for autonomy and self-determination. Develop a relational leadership approach.

5. Create a Koronakommisjonen in your organization. Seek out critical feedback to avoid groupthink and to strengthen the quality of your decisions. Maybe even empower a group within your organization to critically analyze key decisions. I work with two local pastors who have created a mission alignment committee in their congregation that determines if current or new initiatives are in alignment with their mission. This allows the congregation to be internally critical of their decision-making and adjust accordingly. Increase your ability to not only tolerate but to welcome criticism.

If all else fails maybe it would help to eat some lutefisk, take up curling or go ice fishing. On a more serious note, I hope our leaders in America are open to learning a more Norwegian approach to leadership before the next national crisis.

Note: Reporting of COVID mortality rates varied greatly between countries. This study used total expected mortality rates, which would include COVID mortalities as well as deaths caused by lockdowns (like the inability to access healthcare). "The World Health Organization published mortality stats from the past two years, which showed that nearly every country’s excess death count spiked during the pandemic. Norway’s barely moved. The Norwegians had pulled off the closest thing possible to an optimal response to the most vexing problems that Covid-19 presented." WSJ

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