The tottering attempts to reopen economies after coronavirus lockdown call for nerves of steel – and confidence not required since the 2008 financial crisis. That economies have to reopen is without question. What to expect when they do is largely unknown. South Korea, a model for its handling of the crisis, is seeing cases spike again. Figures of Covid-19 deaths are regarded as suspect except in countries known for reliable data – and even there statisticians have resorted to a ‘deaths above average’ count to allow for misreporting and inaccurate death certificates.
We will follow government guidelines (or not) as our culture behoves, in the knowledge that they may change at a moment’s notice. What is safe and what is not is the steepest learning curve of my lifetime. If you get it wrong you’re finished. If you get it right, it wasn’t right enough. Who wants to be Minister for Health today? But who would pass up the chance to lead us out of such a dangerous and persistent disease? As the Daily Paradox has asked a number of times recently, where is the leader we all want? Where can we find a voice of sane confidence?
What is confidence, anyway? Wiki’s “The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something” seems a sweep-up-everything statement that, notwithstanding its comprehensiveness, fails to even touch the coat-tails of what we are defining. Confidence is drive, for without that, it is just a reassuring smile. It is empathy, or the followers won’t engage enough to do more than cheer. It is straight-talk, perhaps more than we think in our world of jargon and gobbledegook. It is consensus but not by vote, rather by intelligent collegiality.
Confidence is not the assurance of wise people that they know, but rather that it is the best they’ve got on offer for now and, right or wrong, they will make it work if at all possible. The confidence of the young subaltern taking some soldiers, due for Gallipoli, back to barracks in 1915 is perhaps one of the greatest confidence stories I know. Three trains crashed at Gretna Green, Scotland, killing 200+ soldiers and several civilians. My father was taking some sailors to Invergordon on one of the trains. His sailors were unhurt, so they set about helping.
Four soldiers were irredeemably trapped under the firebox of one of the engines and the red hot coals were slipping inexorably towards them. Within a minute or two they would reach the soldiers. The soldiers were aware of this and were screaming with fear. The subaltern asked my father to take his sailors away from the scene. As soon as he did so the subaltern shot the soldiers. It was never reported. Technically it could have been a murder charge, of course. I don’t suppose any court would have convicted.
Decisions about the life and death of many more than four people are frequent for those in powerful positions. Nor are choices as clear cut as this one. But the story of the subaltern is an example of how stark choices have to be made and how the person of confidence disregards his or her own position in favour of the right choice for others. I find it deeply touching that a young man could have the confidence to decide what to do – and then carry out his decision.
It illustrates the fact that courage is the twin brother of confidence. For without courage, the strength to implement a confident decision is missing and the leadership contingent on it is a vacuum. When I say the prayer about what can and what cannot be changed, I always substitute the word ‘wisdom’ in the last line with ‘courage’. It is what all need who try to lead.
Covid-19 has brought many examples of amazing courage. The selflessness of those transporting and nursing and generally helping the infected is a testament to the understanding many people have of what their personal confidence must be about. Indeed, the confidence of a dying Prime Minister must have made changes to the character of the man. But there is a risk that the momentary confidence, when choices are clear-cut and options, limited, could be lost in the melee of political survival, with its demands for nuanced words and fudged decisions.
Even short-term decisions create anxiety, especially when they face us with equally unacceptable alternatives. It is at moments like these that I recall the subaltern at Gretna Green 100+ years ago. He decided with confidence and acted with courage.
It was what was expected of him.
It may be expected of any of us.