President Joko Widodo (Photo Courtesy of the State Secretariat)

Leadership in a Crisis


DECEMBER 17, 2020

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made a bold decision on Wednesday, when he announced that the vaccine against coronavirus will be available for free for everybody. He also intended to volunteer to be among the first to get the vaccine. His remarks carried two important messages: he makes it clear that it remains government's commitment to saving the people while encouraging some skeptical Indonesians to take the vaccine as well. Two months ago, he called on his subordinates to carefully plan the highly anticipated Covid-19 vaccinations, especially regarding the selection of those eligible for free vaccination and the rest who must pay for it.

From the perspective of public policy studies, future leaders can take two lessons from his Wednesday’s decisions. First, policy leadership is the key to excellent governance. Policy scholars argue that excellent public policies are more effective tools to help achieve one country’s goals than its natural resources and other variables. Still, they are important but not the key determinant. Policy excellence depends on the capability of the top leader in formulating policies, turning them into actions and controlling their implementation across the nation. The main task of the head of government is therefore concerned mainly with policy development and deployment. 

Jokowi has never attended public administration or public policy schools. However, he has proved himself to be a fast learner during his remarkable journey in public offices -- from the mayor of Solo to the governor of Jakarta to the president of Southeast Asia’s biggest country. Going into second-term as president, he is already extremely skilled at policy leadership -- a subject rarely taught in public policy schools. While public policy is commonly accepted as the task of staffers and consultants, “policy” is indeed the main task of the leader. Jokowi could well meet the definition of a “hands-on manager” in Tom Peter and Robert Waterman’s 1980 bestseller In Search of Excellence -- the one who sticks to the agreed values and policies and ensures they are being implemented beyond a one-off slogan.

Indonesia was falling behind many other countries in its response to the Covid-19 outbreak, which was first announced in late December and became a global pandemic two months later. It’s interesting to note that Jokowi has released Presidential Instruction on the Capacity Building to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Disease Outbreaks, Global Pandemics, and Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Emergencies back in July 2019. However, nobody seemed to respond at a timely manner when the real challenge came within months after its issuance.


It wasn’t until March this year that the Health Ministry began to consider the coronavirus outbreak as a real and present danger to the public health. Its slow response has triggered confusion among other ministries, including the Tourism Ministry that offered transport fare discounts and other incentives to lure international arrivals in the wake of the pandemic. 

On March 13, President Jokowi created the National Covid-19 Task Force who reports directly to him. The task force was expected to become a strong arm of the President in the government’s handling of the national health crisis. However, the task force’s "business-as-usual" approach was unable to satisfy him, who on July 20 expanded it to the National Committee for the Covid-19 Handling and National Economic Recovery. The upgraded task force was led by Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto., supported by State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir. It seemed the President remained hesitant with its performance, as he appointed "multitasker" minister Luhut Binar Panjaitan to become the acting leader of the team. 

Jokowi asked Luhut to oversight Covid response in worst-affected provinces, including Jakarta, West Java, Central Java, East Java, South Kalimantan, South Sulawesi, Bali, North Sumatra and Papua. Those nine provinces account for 75 percent of the nationwide confirmed cases of the virus and are home to 68 percent of active Covid-19 cases.

Changing quickly the person-in-charge of the pandemic response was the first signal of a strong policy leadership. As management guru Jim Collins mentions in his classic Good to Great (2001): “first who, then what”. That was followed by the free vaccine announcement and declaration that the commander in chief will become among the first to take it, a further confirmation that Indonesia has a working leader during a crisis.

People are waiting for a signal, not a noise, as advised by Nate Silver in his book The Signal and The Noise (2012). A signal of serious and concrete measures delivers hope to the people and creates confidence to their government. In a democratic country, public trust is the most important currency and Jokowi has earned it, again.

The second lesson is that policy leadership is the key requirement for any future leader and has to be taught as a core competence in national leadership training institutions like the State Administration Agency (LAN) and the National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas). It is not about leadership alone, but about “policy leadership” -- an urgent requirement more difficult to learn and acquire. There will be many critical pieces of knowledge, practices and arts to learn and exercise. Today's policy training is mostly about drafting legal frameworks, which is not a leader's task anymore. 

Jokowi has demonstrated himself as excellent practitioner of public policy theories. He showed policy leadership when it matters most -- when commodity prices were falling in 2014 and when the country is dealing with the severe economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak this year. But policy leadership needs a team of leaders: the cabinet ministers. A cabinet reshuffle may come top of his agenda in the aftermath of the pandemic.


Riant Nugroho is Chairman of the Institute for Policy Reform in Jakarta.  He teaches public policy in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and China.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Jakarta Globe.