Leadership Lessons in Crisis, the Jordanian Model

Emil Abujaber, NESA Alumnus, CEO and co-founder of Alhadaf organization

Sirens and heavy military equipment roaming the streets of a country usually trigger fear and trauma, thought not as much in Jordan. The COVID-19 pandemic’s rapid spread has left most countries without a sense of security, and it has undoubtedly put government leaders under stress to perform and lead, or react and crumble. Many have reacted; however, some have pro-acted and risen to the occasion with determination to succeed, seeing the situation as an opportunity to overcome and advance towards a possibly different, better future.

Jordan’s case is one of rapid and early response. From the outset, the Jordanian government under Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz and Minister of Health, Dr. Saed Jaber, closely monitored the situation in Wuhan, China, with daily updates through open communication with local and foreign institutions to assess the situation and evaluate global and local threats.

In a recent interview, Dr. Jaber communicated the precautions his ministry has undertaken since the beginning of the crisis in January, beginning with the objective observation and realistic evaluation of the threat that was reported to his desk. The Jordanian government immediately took action by installing thermal sensors in Jordanian airports, banning travel to China and South Korea, and ordering wide and iterative lectures, meetings, and an awareness session with the ministry of health staff. The ministry staff went through 493 awareness and preparation lectures about COVID-19 before the first case was identified within the country, according to Jaber.

Furthermore, the entire government body under the prime minister coordinated efforts according to open communication with the King of Jordan in the National Center for Security and Crises Management, and with the full support of the military and armed forces. In March, the King authorized and enacted Jordan’s defense law for the first time in the country’s history, which gives the PM authority to issue executive orders and enact strict procedures with a clear goal—to save human life and minimize economic suffering as much as possible.

The laws took effect immediately, with the armed forces closing down all entrances between municipalities, and instituting a full lockdown and curfew for three consecutive days. Each night, Amjad Adaileh, the Minister of State for Media Affairs, communicated and released a statement that clearly outlined the current situation, any relevant additional laws and regulations going into force, and included an iterative message that repeated the importance of commitment to the procedures at hand, and the expectation of loyalty to the higher national interests. Afterwards, the Minister of Health would outline the number of new cases of infections, the number of recoveries, and any new directions for health and immunity practices. This provided what psychologists labeled a “holding environment”, which gave Jordanians the needed security and stress-relief to stay calm.

Although the majority of time on air was for Al-Adaileh and Jaber, the ministers of Education, Trade and Supplies, Labor, Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, Tourism and Antiques, Interior, Culture, Finance and others, also made appearances if needed to communicate an essential message regarding the current situation and the short-term implications. The results of the efforts as of today are: 460 cases, 367 recovered, and 9 deaths.

Jordan’s treatment of the situation since January has been admired internally as well as externally, with many calling it a model case of crisis management. Nevertheless, the achievements of the Jordanian government and cabinet are go beyond merely flattening the COVID-19 curve.

For the first time in more than a decade, Jordanians’ perceptions of the government is overwhelmingly positive. Although some are weary of the future and critical of the long-term implications, the general mood is appreciative.

The steps the cabinet took displayed unity and teamwork, a careful reading of reality, and a sense of urgency. Those aspects, combined with the small size of Jordan, gave the government an advantage to deal effectively with the situation despite limited capacity and short resources.

Recalling the recent events in an interview, Dr. Jaber outlined the activities and the justification behind them vividly. Starting with the news from Wuhan and the reaction of the Chinese government to quarantine 20 million people, Dr. Jaber saw that as a warning signal and sensed the need for urgency to act immediately, rather than waiting and taking a passive stance. His initial reaction was aimed at buying as much time as possible before any cases emerged in Jordan to build capacity and prepare the medical community and staff for any change or rise in pressure over the next months. The need for this goal came after the Ministry of Health provided the leadership team with a realistic view of the number of hospitals, beds, protective gear, and other essential medical elements available, which was less than enough at the time.

Realizing that the numbers were low and not sufficient to deal with such a pandemic, Dr. Jaber worked with the officials to shut down and ban travel to China and South Korea, and installed thermal sensors at the airport for early warning signs. Following those airport procedures, the ministry called for a meeting with the Minister of Trade and Supplies Dr. Tareq Al-Hamouri, who summoned local factory owners and businessmen to support them in any way needed to start producing personal protective equipment (PPEs), such as masks and overhauls, to increase hospital capacities and equip the medical community with any needed tools, knowledge, and time to prepare. The plan saw an impressive increase from producing 2000 masks and overhauls a day to 1 million a day, and 250 test-kits a day to 3000 a day.

Along with the production of the needed PPEs, the government continued with the weekly curfews, social distancing policies, and a complete lockdown on weekends to administer as many random sampling tests as possible. The information gathered provided a real-time feedback loop that the government relied on to take any further precautions.

The crisis reaction was not without its faults and mistakes. Some actions were retracted once proved wrong, and some policies were changed or amended. For example, the government tested a plan to distribute and sell bread using public buses to areas around main streets. With the help of armed forces, people lined up and maintained the required six feet distance, however, not in all areas. The plan backfired and was suspended immediately.

Nevertheless, the government was realistic from the beginning, which showed a fresh and efficient mindset in dealing with a crisis. In dealing with COVID-19, the state took an attitude of war and raised tensions immediately with the sight of armed forces roaming the streets. The feeling of being under attack unified the entire country under an enemy that threatened humanity itself. No one stirred distracting or counterproductive critiques, and the leadership provoked one of the highest values of the Jordanian culture in the mind of its citizens: human life. The late King Hussein’s famous quote, “Man is our most precious asset,” has a well-established cultural value but was never felt and strongly manifested before as it is today.

A comprehensive understanding of the situation shows that the elements of unity, cultural values, a sense of urgency, realistic perspectives, and clear communication motivated the government to communicate urgency without panic, honest feedback without tyranny, and consolation without negligence.

Moreover, the resilient and pragmatic mindset clearly manifested from the outset in the activities of the leaders and their reactions. PM Razzaz, Dr. Jaber, and the entire cabinet iterated many times the need for humility and acceptance to make mistakes. This is very admirable, especially in a culture that highly values face-saving and rarely likes to admit wrongdoing.

The leadership team realized that they were entering uncharted territory, and this type of challenge needs a new paradigm to resolve. Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University outlined three types of leadership challenges with different needs and responses. In the first type, the problem is clearly defined, it has precedence, and the solution is technical and readily available. Another type occurs when the problem requires learning, the solution requires learning, and the need is for a full change in behavior. The third type comes with characteristics from both types. The definition of the problem is clear, the solution needs learning, and the strategy needs both technical implementation and behavioral change.

The challenge Jordan faces falls under the last category. The enemy is clear; invisible but clearly defined. We know a bit about it, but Jordan and the world are still learning about the solution as they go. However, some immediate technicalities can be achieved, but not without adaptation and behavioral change. The Jordanian government realized this type of challenge and its need for feedback and learning, and is following both technical and adaptive activities to overcome it, albeit risking some social and political capital.

Today’s governmental model of dealing with the crisis and its implications must not be wasted and should be well-documented for future references. The combined elements of manageable country size, clear enemy, united effort, sense of urgency, effective communication strategies, teamwork and effective relational channels both internal and external, vertical and horizontal, and maybe most importantly, effective executions coupled with the right hosting environment provides an opportunity for leaders to move forward and achieve many delayed goals and overcome roadblocks.

Following the current mindset that integrates scientific methods and feedback loops for decision-making, clear values and strong communication, the government can encourage and achieve a different and new face for the Jordanian population.

For example, John Kotter found that a plan that starts with an increased sense of urgency, a strong team, clear vision, effective and repetitive communication, execution and empowerment of lower level participation, short-term wins and reinforcement of values into culture, is a model that makes change achievable and more likely to happen. The current situation provides all needed elements for such change and can prepare Jordan for the coming economic-political challenges ahead. Also present are ripe circumstances for global change that require a new worldview to continue fostering the deeply held aspirations of Jordanian men and women.

Emil Abujaber is currently the CEO and co-founder of Alhadaf organization in Amman, Jordan. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership and consults multinational companies in the MENA region. You can reach him at dr@emilabujaber.com