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Covid-19: leadership lessons applicable to surgery



It remains difficult to blog without viewing a subject through the lens of the new COVID-19 world. The crisis has brought out some of the very best and some of the worst human behaviour. The global scientific community is working collaboratively to find a vaccine in a way that hasn’t been seen before. How said vaccine is distributed will be another huge test. Will pre-existing inequalities dictate availability? When efficacy ultimately depends on the immunity of the global herd, one would hope for a pan-world approach. For that to happen, big pharma will need (temporarily at least) to act selflessly and international collaboration and cooperation will be key. The behaviour of certain world leaders raises concern.

Regarding leadership, the variation in approach to the crisis has been wide. The friction between federal and state government in the USA remains tangible, with a second surge occurring as a consequence of ill-conceived and poorly timed federal policy. Straight-forward ignorance and intransigence of Brazil’s leader are undeniably resulting in more death. The European Union certainly does not seem united. And whilst there are many factors beyond leadership that inform how well a country manages, there have been several examples of high quality, empathetic, educated leadership. What is more, many of them have been women.

Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, and Taiwan are examples of countries that have coped well. All are led by women. The conclusion that women are therefore better leaders is tempting but overly simplistic. One needs to appreciate that in all of these countries there is in general better gender equality, with more women in leadership positions across society. More likely, leadership is enhanced by two genders contributing complimentarily. The ‘power qualities’ associated with a stereotyped male leader do not typically include empathy, listening, and compassion. Yet these are factors that have rightly been lauded in several female world leaders, and which have been key to informing their response to COVID-19. This issue extends beyond gender imbalance into ethnicity.

All organisations will function better by diversifying their sources of talent in all realms: gender, ethnicity, and disability. Surgery is no different. The presidents of all three dedicated UK Royal Colleges of Surgeons are white men. The presidents of the UK societies of orthopaedic, general, plastic, urological, neurological, cardiothoracic, and paediatric surgery are currently all white men. This does not reflect our society and must change.


Mark Hughes

Consultant neurosurgeon, Edinburgh

Director, eoSurgical 

Email: mark.hughes@eosurgical.com

Twitter: @eosurgical