ON Research | Modern Leadership and Pandemic Recovery
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Modern Leadership and Pandemic Recovery

James Vena is a retired Wall St CEO, Entrepreneur, US-China Trade Pioneer, Board Member, PE/VC Advisor, Investor and 4X Author. He talks to ONResearch to share his perception on the role of modern leadership in the current pandemic as well as what impact it will have on the economy.

Global trade has felt the adverse effects of a pandemic and political rhetoric, with countries making unprecedented shifts towards protectionism. What are some of the key mistakes stakeholders should avoid at a time like this?

Now, the rhetoric is “anti”. Some leaders have, what we might call willful arrogance, or maybe it’s willful ignorance or arrogant ignorance. Arrogant ignorance is this idea that we do not need change and should be working to return things to the way they were before. Leaders have capitalized on the uneducated, to vote against globalization. For example, in 2012, the President of the United States said China was taking our jobs. In 2016, he said China did not play fair and to set up tariffs that ultimately had a domino effect that led to inflation. Now eight years later, the narrative is that the pandemic is in the United States because we did not put up the right barriers; this narrative is pandering to the big invoke. 

Yesterday, I turned 60. I started my career in international markets in 1981. I have seen amazing things happening in the world because of the growth in very underdeveloped countries at the time. We would be making a huge mistake to think that helping countries develop is not the way to the future. We should learn from others and understand that while it is important to be patriotic, and have national foundations, we should not think that everyone should believe what we believe. There is currently a lot of resistance to that progress. 

There is some progress with the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements, but I think there is still a long way to go and change will bring more resistance. Robert Kennedy once said, ‘change is great, but it does have its enemies.’ Global citizenship and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. 

Actions have already been taken that will impact trade relations and outcomes for the coming months. What are some of the key events to look out for in the global trade arena from Q3 2020 into Q1 2021?

The key event right now will be a vaccine. I think there will be things that come with a vaccine like euphoria. Of course, then the world will face the challenge of having to vaccinate majority of the population.

Alternatively, it could happen overnight but even that I believe will create more trade friction. Let us take a scenario where trade tensions exist between two countries; if one country finds a vaccine or is affiliated to another that has developed a vaccine, it will have an impact on trade between both parties going forward. The cost of the vaccine would most likely be accounted for in our everyday cost of living so to speak as economies of scale. 

The second key event right now is the upcoming elections in the United States. I think the rhetoric will be amped up, and there will be continued digging in against globalization. If this continues here in the United States, it will pull other countries around the world in the same direction because trade is something like dancing. It’s cause and effect; the more the cause the greater the effect. All of this is happening in an economy that keeps printing money to keep everybody happy and I have to say if it continues to do so we could be looking at something catastrophic. 

Two years from now we could be facing hyperinflation and it would have emanated from this period. We could be looking at a situation like the late 1920s, early 1930s, where something much deeper than the great recession could be in play, because the world is right now spoiled with its own riches. Historically, we have the same situation that is setting up for a world war, this is because both world wars had their roots in protectionism, and I am looking at a Herbert Hoover style of protectionism. I am an optimist, but if the pandemic brings about the end of globalization, it could be catastrophic.

What are some of the actions that stakeholders such as governments and multinationals can take to cushion the impact of the current global situation?

The first thing they could do is understand that it is a global human health crisis, and that it is important for us to act in concert with each other. We should not be fighting with the World Health Organization. We are in the middle of probably the greatest pandemic since the Spanish flu. We’ve also faced other pandemics since, SARS, MERS, AIDS to name a few, and I always remember those crises were worked out with very strong global leadership. I have seen global health crises before, but never seen one that has fractured the global community like this, it does not do anybody any good. People have treated Wuhan, China with a lot of derogatory terms and bullying. Leaders should recognize that China has a very strong economy and you do not pick a fight with the biggest dog on the porch, or may be the second. Right now, global leadership is more about money when it needs to be about human interests. Where the virus came from, at this point does not matter, we just need to focus on getting rid of it. There are many different countries in the world that have handled this right and there are countries in the world that have handled it wrong. The fact that countries are not communicating and are trying to cater to their own originality for political reasons is astonishing. 

In 2017 you wrote about leadership, success and the art of positive influence. One might argue that the past six months have shown great leadership in some areas, and a lack of leadership in other. What do you believe is the disconnect between the discourse on leadership and the actions that leaders are taking today?

First of all, leadership and positive leadership are two completely separate things. If somebody is a leader, it does not mean they are a positive leader. Leadership is all about influence, and good leadership is all about positive influence. There is a market valuing processes that is very narcissistic; very willfully arrogant sometimes. In the last six months, the world has seen what I mean. Take Adolf Hitler, who obviously was a leader of masses and he attained that influence while basically sharing propaganda that was only meant to satisfy the least intelligent. This type of leadership is neither positive nor effective. 

I do not think leadership has to have absolute integrity and we have not seen integrity in leadership around the world in the last six months, and not in the last year in a lot of places. We have seen a lot of instances where leaders pretend to know what they do not know. There is no such thing as lapse of integrity. It is a defect when a leader that does not accept what they do not know and tries to fake it. 

Intellectual humility and integrity are two absolute must haves that go a long way and provides the courage and empathy that one needs to actually succeed as a positive leader. Everybody here is kind of fighting for their piece of the pie, whether we vote or not. And I think great leaders are leaders that understand how to unify the people irrespective of nation. The world really is thirsting for positive leadership because what is going on right now is not working.

I am hopeful for the generation of my children who are currently in their 30’s. This generation is more educated, more globally minded, less prone to ignorance, arrogance or racism. I am hopeful that there will be a time that this mindset will take over the world. Of course, the pendulum only swings so much one way and so much to the other, I do think that we need to find some sort of middle ground. I am a middle ground guy, and I will leave it here on this note. I believe that opinions are people’s confessions of character and not fact. So anytime I give an opinion, or you give an opinion or anybody else gives an opinion what we really are doing is confessing our character. 


Interviewed by Sanghita Polley Hazra, Research Associate at ONResearch