Greece and the Secret of Smart Leadership
A coronavirus success story.
I started writing these blog-posts back in 2014, during the beginning years of my company. My very first piece was about Greece in the middle of the financial crisis. I wanted to write something positive and to promote the country’s image through the potential of charismatic people who stand out in what they do.
Anno 2020, same story: crisis. This time it is because of the corona pandemic. However, the country has so far been a real coronavirus success story. "Greece has defied the odds," said Kevin Featherstone, director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics in a NYT article, emphasising the outstanding COVID-19 crisis management of the country since March. Greece, which suffered from a poor image after the Eurozone crisis, managed to upgrade its reputation with early measures and efficient communication.
Athens was one of the first EU capitals to react to the pandemic. An ad-hoc scientific committee was set up with top epidemiologists, virologists and infectious disease experts. The government decided on lockdown restrictions in mid-March, closing down schools, restaurants, museums, and retail shops and banning non-essential movement throughout the country. During the lockdown, Greeks have been allowed out of their homes only for essential work, buying food or walking the dog.
These restrictions were a perilous stress test for a country with an aging population and health care services badly hit by austerity. After eight years of tough austerity measures, the country had only 560 intensive care unit (ICU) beds. It was a hard reality that left no room for mitigation strategy, or contemplating policies of achieving "herd immunity".
Successful crisis communication
Digital technologies have been key to inform the population and ease both bottom-up and top-down transmission processes. The full lockdown measures involved the edition of derogatory movement certificates to report and justify every population’s movement. This massive bottom-up process has been a challenge for many countries in Europe because not everyone could use a printer.
Therefore, the government allowed a third option: the certificate could be replaced by a simple SMS to a free number. This witty measure substantially eased the process for many students and isolated persons who didn't necessarily own a printer. More than 110 million messages were sent, and the OECD praised the initiative.
Digital helped to keep everyday life movements clear and simple for many users. This quick mobilisation of digital tools contributed to strengthening the government’s legitimacy by showing its will for simplification in assisting citizens coping with the new measures.
Greece’s fast digital transition because of COVID-19 measures is just one example. Dozens of public services went digital which came as a miracle in a society still heavily relying on paper documents. Greece's minister of digital governance Kyriakos Pierrakakis said the platform freed thousands of users - especially high-risk groups - from having to turn up at public services, as they were now able to sign documents digitally. These digital public services, along with distance teaching and big fines allowed Greece to rapidly curb outbreaks, keeping the death toll at a very low level.
The simplification of the bottom-up process avoided severing the ties between the government and the citizens. Together with daily TV reports, it maintained the link with the Greek citizens despite the pandemic.
Officials’ hyper presence in the media sphere also played a key role in reassuring the population. From the start of the crisis, they actively controlled the narrative by investing channels of communication and empowering scientists. Epidemiologist Sotiris Tsiodras rapidly became a leading figure as he held daily briefings on TV, together with Nicholas Hardalias, the deputy minister for civil protection. According to a recent poll, the two men are the most famous people in the country, as they have been praised for their outstanding advice.
Scientists' empowerment and a clear and consistent message allowed the government to close the trust gap with the population. Even the Orthodox Church was forced to drastically adapt to the situation despite the strong spiritual habits of many citizens and suspend all religious gatherings.
The Greek crisis management came as a surprise for many observers. However, there are also other reasons why the country did so well in curbing the pandemic. People suffered a severe economic meltdown since 2010, and the whole nation has been in an almost non-stop crisis mode for years, explaining the population’s astonishing resilience.
It is more than two millennia ago that the Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that humility is the greatest of the virtues. His timeless observation was that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know.
During the last decade, scientists have produced many new studies examining this characteristic and its effects on our thinking and reasoning. According to this research, people with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers.
Humble people make the greatest leaders and the best communicators. There are many brilliant and humble scientists like Sotiris Tsiodras in modern Greece - but there is also a new generation of efficient politicians, like Kyriakos Mitsotakis who make the difference.
Nevertheless, the country is still highly dependent for its economic survival on the tourism industry, and if that industry fails, then the social consequences can be devastating. Overdependence on one or two industries is also often accompanied by underdevelopment within other sectors of the economy such as education, health or the manufacturing.
The tourism sector is extremely vulnerable to economic, social, and political changes in either the generating or host countries. Diversification is a sign of health. Athens should find new innovative ways for developing a more heterogeneous economy.