Clarity is the key to effective leadership. What are your goals?   

– Brian Tracy, American-Canadian motivational speaker

Months into the coronavirus pandemic crisis, Health Director-General Datuk Seri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has shown that he can be a very effective communicator.

I love the style during his daily press conferences — deliberately select fact and details, less rhetoric, less bluster; cut the homilies and rambles; more empathy for the dead and dying, and those caring for them; more explanation of decision making; more linking of new policy announcements to previous ones, and to data; use of graphics to explain.

In times of crisis, people look to leaders for confidence and strength. If you look disorganised, people fear that you are disorganised. The role of a leader in a crisis is not only to devise and execute but also narrate the strategy. It is to take the public into your confidence about why you are making the decisions you are making.

To me, he is the best and modern version of a civil servant. I suggest secretary-generals and director- generals of ministries should look to him for aspiration.

First, tone and mood. Dr Noor Hisham does not hide how serious things are, far from it. As an endocrine surgeon, he is calm, composed, polite and authoritative throughout. The way that he talks a simple science with the public during this crisis matters because it could mean the difference between life and death.

Second, hard facts, and details. Even on social media, the screen is split, on one side his face, on the other a presentation that he is explaining through, setting out with simple clear graphics the many facts of the pandemic crisis: Deaths. Cases. Testing. Capacity of the health system. Masks. Ventilators. He gives detailed area-by-area breakdowns of figures, clusters, points out trends, tries to explain them.

Third, empathy. He diversifies the factual presentation with regular sincere thanks to his staff, front-liners and individuals, including non-government organisations along with calm, steady and reassuring facts. He doesn’t tell them that they should be willing to die to save the people, which played on fears, caused anger.

Fourth, thinking ahead. He is the first high-ranking civil servant I see openly to put concerns about mental health at the heart of his strategy, and a couple of month ago he announced the plan for psychologists and psychiatrists to help people to cope with movement control order (MCO).

He showed empathy, spelling out how lonely many people were already, due to mandated social distancing. It was hard, he said, for families forced to spend day and night together, and noted that as for himself.

Fifth, inspiration. This is vital in a leader. It is inspiring to watch him even though some of the terms used such as “flattening the curve”, “SARI” “pandemic” are alien to many of us. Nonetheless somehow, I feel part of his narrative. I feel the hurdles are enormous, but confident they can be overcome, as with his reminders that society will continue to function, the world will still be here once the crisis is done.

He is helping the public understand they have to be part of the solution and reassuring them that even though we don’t know when the crisis will end. I have felt none of that sense of a shared voyage when watching the former Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general, during the tragic incidents of MH370 and MH17.

Despite being applauded by the public as a “national hero”, Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has downplayed his role, saying that “It’s not about me. It is what we can do together as one. “What we can do for Covid-19 (situation). What is important is our service,” he said some time back.

As I have now, belatedly, discovered, there’s no substitute for finally sitting down and re-reading the 1947 novel “The Plague,” by Albert Camus. Its relevance lashes you across the face. A committed doctor named Dr Bernard Rieux is the heart of the story.

From the very beginning, Dr Rieux devotes himself to resisting the plague and achieving solidarity with its victims. His sense of purpose is wrapped up in struggle and sacrifice demanded by the sickness. Based on my reading, he is no different than Dr Noor Hisham in that respect.

The doctor works tirelessly to lessen the suffering of those around him. But he is no hero. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies. Nothing else really matters when your day-to-day survival is at stake. There’s just here and now and, as Dr Rieux says, “We’re all involved in it.”

Anyway, he has been widely praised for his communication skills, which provide leadership and engage the people, helping the public understand they have to be part of the solution and reassuring them that even though we don’t know when the pandemic will end.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.