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Leadership in Asia: Leadership Challenges through Covid-19

Whilst East Asia has been praised for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic faster and better than most of the West, it’s not been without its challenges, and with no end in sight, it continues to be a work in progress. 

As every country struggles with the economic impact of the pandemic, every leader has at one point or continues to, struggle with the disruption.  What has become apparent is the need for effective leaders to have a heightened sense of empathy, communicate often and with clarity, maintain a growth mindset, have the ability to embrace change and innovate, and to be resilient.

In Roffey Park Institute’s and Profile‘s Working in Asia Pacific study, we surveyed 2,402 respondents from 14 countries across the APAC region in a variety of roles and industries – from professional services, financial services, industry and commerce to the public sector.  The survey respondents indicated they want strong leadership and vision from their line manager and their management respectively. This is crucial especially in times of disruption, as leadership skills can help motivate and influence employees, thereby increasing employee morale and productivity. A lack of this along with vision generally renders employees with a lack of direction.  In fact, the top reason why employees responded for wanting to leave their job included (1) Lack of career growth and developmental opportunities, (2) Poor Leadership from Line Managers, (3) Lack of vision from Organisational Leadership.

Unprecedented times such as these also call for situational and adaptive leadership behaviour and the swift responses by some governments in the region have reduced the risk of the pandemic spreading and mitigated some of the broader economic issues.  Southeast Asian countries have had varying responses to the pandemic and those which have fared particularly well have demonstrated effective leadership by taking prompt and pre-emptive action, delivering clear communication, transparency, enforced early lockdowns and travel bans, introduced physical safe distancing measures and donning of face masks, implemented mass testing, digital contact tracing, employed drone surveillance, and deployed robots for some services.

By contrast, other countries in the region have experienced delayed responses to the handling of the pandemic, with a general lack of preparedness, limited access to healthcare or inadequate or overwhelmed healthcare systems, varying technical capabilities and limited resources to name a few. 

The disparity of the pandemic extends to sectors and companies where some are thriving and others are suffering, underlined by a wider concern of survival within a growing global economic downturn.  In 2019, the World Economic Forum predicted that in 2020, Asia will have the world’s largest GDP whilst in 2021 (1) whilst in 2020 the International Monetary Fund suggesting the pandemic-related economic shrinkage in 2020 was 1.6% (2).

As the situation is still evolving, some of the more detailed challenges leaders have and are experiencing are the loss of planning and control with ever-changing goal posts, decision making based on incomplete information, sobering assessments of business survival, job loss or retrenchments, the redistribution of manpower and managing the new working arrangements and work-life boundaries for themselves and their teams.

For example, in many parts of Asia not everyone has the capacity for remote working due to hardware access or patchy or unstable phone signals or internet connection. For those who do have access they may be sharing it among a multi-generational household together with everyone under the one roof.   In other parts of Asia there is a communal culture style of working where people enjoy the connections and the meal sharing which for many is still missing.  These challenges have forced leaders to be creative, redistribute workload and responsibilities as they manage productivity levels and employee engagement. 

There is often a stigma in Asia around mental health and seeking help however due to the lack of social connection, adaption to these changes, the uncertainty and the stress, it seems to be coming more acceptable to talk about it and reach out. 

A considerable advantage of working in Asia during this pandemic has been the cultural force of collectivism, where in many countries there’s a mutual understanding that one has a duty to society to “’follow the rules” or conform to the situation for the better of the community.  It’s a positive mindset that appears to have resulted in a quicker recovery for some Asian nations and from a working perspective there is an acceptance of the new norm and working towards making the best of the situation.


  1. In 2020 Asia will have the world’s largest GDP. Here’s what that means
  2. Navigating the Pandemic: A Multispeed Recovery in Asia

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