FOUR CASES, THE SAME STORY? THE ROLES OF THE PRIME MINISTERS IN THE V4 COUNTRIES DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS.
The evolution of leadership under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic has already attracted the interest of many researchers (Bauwens et al., 2022). However, the results of their research have not yet addressed all research gaps. Within this context, our main objective is to contribute to the ongoing academic discourse and offer results of comparative analysis. The goal of this article is to assess indicators of adaptive leadership at the highest level during the COVID-19 crisis in several Central and Eastern European countries, namely, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. All four countries are member countries of the EU and in all of them, the health care systems are based on the principle of universal access, and are administered by slightly different public health insurance schemes (for more about national health care systems see for example publications of WHO Health Observatory).
The first COVID-19 cases in all four countries were registered in early March 2020 and, as of today, we may speak about two waves of the pandemic. The first wave happened in spring and early summer 2020. During this period, the selected countries did not suffer so much in comparative perspective and Slovakia in particular was extremely successful from the point of the control of the spread of the infection (Slovakia registered only 35 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and only 28 deaths in the mentioned period). The second wave started in all the selected countries in late summer 2020 and relaxed in early summer 2021. The numbers of newly infected cases during this wave reached critical numbers, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in particular were evaluated as the worst performers in an international perspective for the winter period of 2020-2021.
The significant differences between the two waves call for deeper explanations. Existing articles (e.g., Klimovsky, Maly and Nemec, 2021) argue that in countries with limited quality of collaborative governance and without experience with a similar pandemic, some short-term 'ultra-mobilization' led to an effective fight against the spread of the pandemic in spring 2020, but, from the long-term perspective, failures were unavoidable. Governance weaknesses, limited administrative capacity, together with other factors, led to massive governance failures and, as a result, the governments' responses during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic delivered very limited results in terms of the prevalence of COVID-19.
Within the described context, we identified the prime ministers (PMs) of the selected countries as the most suitable leaders for the purpose of our analysis: (1) the PMs are the most powerful executive decision makers in all the analyzed countries; (2) the PMs are on the top of crisis management hierarchy in all the analyzed countries; (3) thanks to their responsibilities and powers, the PMs' speeches and statements are covered in detail by the national media in all the analyzed countries.
From the perspective of style of politics, especially Hungary and Poland, or more precisely their political representatives, were repeatedly criticized by the EU and its representatives, by journalists, as well as by political scientists due to their recent measures undermining the quality of democracy. The Czech PM was also often criticized due to suspicions of large-scale corruption and clientelism. On the contrary, an unexpected electoral result in Slovakia in early 2020 was welcomed as an important shift and a new start of the Slovak journey from a corrupt political system. These facts offer us an interesting group of leaders whose behaviors, statements and decisions undoubtedly and significantly influenced the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective countries.
Adaptive leadership as a way to respond to the pandemic
The novelty of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the turbulent nature of the problems that had occurred since its beginning has recently led many researchers to analyze the institutional frameworks of various governments' responses (Capano et al., 2020). Many of them (e.g., Choi, 2020) found collaborative governance as a meaningful framework for effective adoption of necessary policy measures. However, differing results of governments declaring collaborative approaches show us that a deeper analysis and more detailed insights are needed if one wants to identify determinants of governments' success under such circumstances.
The type and quality of leadership are undoubtedly two of the crucial determinants of successful coping with turbulent problems (Ansell, Sorensen and Torfing, 2020; Klimovsky, Maly and Nemec, 2021). Speaking on these problems, they differ a lot from common problems which usually lead to technical challenges; by virtue of the unclear roots and volatile developments, the turbulent problems are often accompanied by adaptive challenges. The adaptive challenges have specific characteristics: (1) transformation of inputs into outputs is not clear and linear and a copying strategy can lead to unintended consequences; (2) formal authority is insufficient, i.e., although it exists, it is not enough (or strong enough) to effect the required change; (3) different stakeholders want different outcomes and consensual decision-making is impossible; (4) previously highly successful protocols fail and do not bring expected outcomes (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, pp. 52-53).
The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered numerous adaptive challenges and raised the question whether these adaptive challenges should be addressed by adaptive leadership. On this matter, it is important to stress that various types of leadership have been employed in different conditions since the beginning of the pandemic (Bauwens et al., 2022). While some of them brought some positive results, others clearly failed. However, there is no clear evidence supporting only one type of leadership. As for the aforementioned adaptive leadership, preliminary results confirm that adaptive leadership could positively determine adoption of some effective measures. For instance, Bagwell (2020) considers an adaptive approach to leadership a crucial instrument of school leaders in their effort to build resiliency and capacity for their school communities to weather future disruptions caused by the pandemic (Bagwell, 2020, pp. 30-31). The importance of adaptive leadership is confirmed by the results of research conducted by Garavaglia, Sancino and Trivellato (2021) who focused on the leadership actions of mayors in Italy during the first as well as the second wave of the pandemic. In comparison, according to Placek, Spacek and Ochrana (2021), mayors in the Czech Republic responded differently and they employed a variety of (non-)adaptation strategies during the first wave of the pandemic. The positive results were especially achieved by those mayors who did not remain passive and who actively tried to employ adaptive strategy in the performance of their tasks.
Glover, Friedman and Jones (2002, p. 15) proposed fundamental skills for practicing adaptive leadership, namely cultural competency, managing knowledge, creating synergy, and adaptive vision. Cultural competency could be defined as an ability to understand and interact (e.g., communicate) with people from different backgrounds, values, etc. Knowledge management requires the capacity and readiness to achieve some objectives by the proper use of knowledge and previous experience. A creation of synergy is based on a belief of individuals or groups that a common objective is paramount and joint activity, i.e., collaboration of all stakeholders, is more than the sum of individual activities of these stakeholders. Last but not least, adaptive vision facilitates a smooth and streamlined adoption of coherent measures.
Taking into account Heifetz's (1994) model, Macpherson and 't Hart (2020) propose five fundamental recommendations that should be followed by leaders while facing turbulent problems and adaptive challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (Table 1).
As already mentioned, the goal of this paper is to deliver a comparative analysis of the behaviors and statements of the PMs in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, using the concept of adaptive leadership as the basis for this analysis. We employ the concepts of the four fundamental skills proposed by Glover, Friedman and Jones (2002) and of the five fundamental recommendations proposed by Macpherson and 't Hart (2020) to assess the behaviors and relevant statements of the PMs of the four analyzed countries in times of the pandemic. On this matter, we want to address the following research questions:
* What skills for practicing adaptive leadership have been applied by the PMs of the analyzed countries since the beginning of the pandemic?
* To what extent have the PMs of the analyzed countries followed the recommendations of adaptive leadership since the beginning of the pandemic?
The main methods for this article have a qualitative character--we use national case studies to present the situation and comparative analysis to find commonalities and differences. We base our analysis on official activities and statements of the PMs in national media and statements published through their social media accounts. In addition, we also include decisions made by the PMs as well as anti-pandemic measures taken by their governments since the beginning of the pandemic until the late spring 2021 in our analysis. This approach provides us with a broader context and better data for analysis.
PMs and their activities, behaviors and statements during the pandemic
4.1. Czech Republic
Mr. Andrej Babis entered the political scene with the project of the ANO political movement in 2011 and, during the 2013 election campaign, representatives of this movement emphasized the novelty and non-political nature of its candidates in...
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