Self-directedness has been a buzzword for several years, especially in education and the world of work. Supervisors and teachers do not give commands but guide people towards their own inner enthusiasms. Even problem situations have been seen as minor pitfalls to be tackled with just a gentle push in the right direction.

Crises require strong leadership

Now the situation is different – we are all in trouble. In the current crisis caused by the coronavirus, the government has recommended that all physical contacts be avoided. However, a recommendation still allows room for self-direction.

If my internal motivation includes a desire to go to a ski resort to improve my wellbeing temporarily, on the basis of an ideal self-direction theory I will aim towards this goal. And yet, that’s not at all in line with the government’s recommendations. The type of self-directedness in which everyone listens only to their own desires cannot be the right strategy to manage a shared crisis.

In his letter to editor in Helsingin Sanomat on 23 March 2020, Perttu Salovaara wrote about group directedness, in which the community members guide their actions towards a common goal. The group direction is a larger phenomenon and, therefore, suits better for work organisations and even societies. In the case of the coronavirus, the common goal is to protect risk groups and decrease physical contacts.

Based on recent news reports (as of 21–23 March), it seems that many people are now acting to work towards this goal. But there remain some who are not. Raising glasses in karaoke bars is just an example. Group direction, which is supported with a clear common target and recommendations, seems to have its limitations in problem situations.

The Finnish Government, together with the President of the Republic, have declared emergency conditions in the country. Based on that, self-direction of individuals has been limited: schools have been closed and gatherings prohibited. The strategy has worked because those who are not given options now contribute to a common objective.

Necessity is sometimes the best muse and in a crisis situation strong leadership seems to be the best way to pursue quick and desired results. It might be a good idea to keep this strategy in mind also in the world of work.

Self-directedness works in a world without community-based problems. The coronavirus reminds us that such a world does not always exist. Therefore, it is good to remember, also during good times, that self-directedness works in some situations and group directedness in others – but sometimes top-down leadership may also be required. It doesn’t need to consist solely of inflexible decrees, however; it can also be empathetic and based in strong argumentation. Sanna Marin is a living example of this.

Soila Lemmetty, Doctoral Student of Adult Education, University of Jyväskylä

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.