How the World’s Greatest Leaders respond to unexpected crises

May 12, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

No one told Willie Ray Fairley what to do after a historically devastating windstorm leveled much of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last August. He’s an entrepreneur who runs a barbecue restaurant, Willie Ray’s Q Shack, and what he needed to do seemed obvious. “I just got on my bike,” he told a local magazine, “and started going around letting a few people know, ‘Hey, we got food if you need it.’” 

Soon he was giving away 400 meals a day. Word got around. Social media loved the story, as did CNN. Two weeks later, he said, he was getting calls from people all over the world asking how they could help. Now a billboard in Cedar Rapids exhorts viewers to “Be a Willie.” Everyone knows what that means.

In a matter of days, Fairley had become an exemplary leader, which is why he’s on our 2021 list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. Tumultuous times bring forth unexpected leadership, often from people who had never imagined playing such a role. Many on this year’s roster are there because of how they responded to the global pandemic. Others rose up to meet different, desperate situations. Some were already in leadership positions; many were not. 

What’s so striking about this year’s group is how many of them emerged almost instantly, seemingly out of nowhere, to meet unimagined crises. Like Fairley, they embody Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s conception of “a true leader”—someone who “has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.” MacArthur also pointed out that such a person “does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of [their] actions and the integrity of [their] intent.”

Consider Diana Berrent, who in March 2020 became one of America’s first COVID-19 cases. Most patients focused on simply getting through the ordeal, but Berrent saw an opportunity to rally other recovered patients who could donate antibody-rich plasma that may someday help victims of the disease. More broadly, she realized she could connect, educate, and mobilize COVID-19 survivors. The group she launched, Survivor Corps, has attracted 166,000 members. Berrent has turned out to be a COVID long-hauler, still suffering significant symptoms, but she continues to lead the effort.

A closer look at our 2021 roster reveals two key traits that characterize successful leaders.

They confront new realities quickly and fully. Doing this sounds so simple and obvious, yet most people find it almost impossibly difficult. We are experts at denying or minimizing a new reality: It isn’t all that significant, we tell ourselves, or it isn’t really new, and besides, it won’t last very long, and then the comfortable status quo will resume. When the pandemic struck the U.S. in March 2020, legislators of both parties thought the Paycheck Protection Program to backstop battered small businesses would serve its purpose in 90 days; as of mid-May 2021, it’s still accepting applications. 

Many countries besides the U.S. were slow to confront the new reality of COVID-19. By contrast, the administration of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, No. 1 on this year’s list, began screening arriving airline passengers from China in January 2020, before the disease had a name; as of this writing, the country had reported fewer than 2,700 cases, just 26 of them fatal, in a population of nearly 5 million. That’s the life-and-death importance of confronting reality fast.

They take action, doing things no one else is doing or has done, with no assurance they will succeed. This may be even harder than confronting new realities. We humans are risk averse. We’re hardwired to prefer a low-risk, low-return action over a high-risk, high-return one. Faced with a difficult high-stakes decision, we wait for more information and try to achieve consensus, burning valuable time. 

Effective leaders behave differently. Kate Bingham, No. 18 on our roster, left her job as a venture capitalist in July to head the U.K.’s Vaccine Taskforce, realizing quickly that “we had one shot to get it right and no time,” as she later told the Times of London. Without a playbook to guide her, she refused to join the EU’s vaccine-buying group, instead ordering vaccines from seven developers, with no certainty that even one of them would work. Spurning normal contracting procedures, she struck deals that were “creative,” as the government later reported. She was criticized along the way, but her approach enabled Britain to secure large vaccine supplies and get its people vaccinated far ahead of most other countries.

Some of the World’s Greatest Leaders will remain in public life for many years. Others, having stepped forward in a moment of need, will return to plowing their fields, like Cincinnatus. This 2021 roster reminds us that we need them all, and they can arise from anywhere among us. 

Head Writers: Erika Fry, Matt Heimer, Clifton Leaf

Writers: Maria Aspan, Eamon Barrett, Lydia Belanger, Scott DeCarlo, Katherine Dunn, Robert Hackett, Emma Hinchliffe, Jeremy Kahn, Beth Kowitt, Rey Mashayekhi, Grady McGregor, David Meyer, McKenna Moore, Sy Mukherjee, Brian O’Keefe, Anne Sraders, Jonathan Vanian, Phil Wahba, Claire Zillman

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