- IMD Business School

"The Emperor’s New Clothes”, COVID-19 and leadership

A tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: What COVID-19 teaches us about leadership.
8 min.
April 2020

Do you want to be the responsible leader who sees issues as they are and fixes them, like a bold child, or do you want to be like an overconfident emperor who never learns, and goes back to business as usual?

The COVID-19 crisis makes this question an urgent one for leaders, who are at a crossroads, argues Professor Girod, using Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a metaphor.

For sure, most of us relate to the feeling of not daring to comment for fear of sounding stupid.

In the first of this two-part series of video vignettes, Stephane J.G. Girod lays bare some of the inconsistencies and vulnerabilities in society that the crisis has revealed. He segments them into social, technological, economic and ecological levels.

Tensions between the US and China, a European lack of collaboration, and ongoing fiscal imbalances and economic inequalities are all areas he touches upon. We live in a polarized world, full of inequalities, deregulation and globalization, and COVID has revealed the inconsistencies.

Professor Girod’s tone is one of mild anger. “Multinationals had the chance to save globalization by placing it on a more sustainable footing. They still haven’t done that,” he asserts.  “Unbalanced globalization and deregulation have compromised our national securities and people are dying of it.”

Something isn’t working in society. If the fatality rate is lower than previous pandemics, why has it grounded our society to a halt?

Then there is digital, that we feel we cannot live without. Whilst it has played a positive role in this crisis, the crisis is also a timely reminder of our vulnerability. Technology alone won’t save us; connecting with our environment too might.

We also face serious risks to our freedom, as machine learning grows in sophistication. Social network analysis during the crisis means danger first, opportunities second. The solution? Use data ethically and set limits as citizens.

In video two, Professor Girod presents six ways to contribute to a more balanced post-COVID world, collaborating in turn with Natalia Olynec, IMD’s Head of Sustainability. These include orchestrating local-for-local and regional-for-regional supply chains, showing forbearance and promoting a green recovery.

For employers, the COVID crisis marks an opportunity for companies to embrace a broader sense of purpose and individuals to commit to a conscious mindset change. Professor Girod helps interested parties make sense of concretely how.

We have our hands pretty full fighting the immediate danger that COVID represents. But afterwards, the vulnerabilities and inconsistencies that it is making painstakingly obvious will not have simply disappeared into the ether, just like climate change won’t have gone away, warns Professor Girod. At worst, they could go on to trigger even more harmful crises.

But we still have a chance to change our societies and our fate, and it starts with leaders being shameless and bold. The stuff of children.

Dr. Stéphane J.G. Girod is Professor of Strategy and Organizational Innovation. He directs Reinventing Luxury: Strategic Conversations and co-directs Digital Execution. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and will co-publish a book on agility transformation, “Resetting Management” with Kogan Page in 2021.


Video 1 – What the COVID-19 teaches us about leadership

Video 2 – Responsible business leadership in a post-COVID world


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