Leadership in Crisis – Where are Leaders at the Moment?

Setting the Scene

Is leadership in crisis?

We are facing a crisis of global proportions; on a scale we have not seen before. The Coronavirus pandemic doesn’t discriminate or respect borders and the virus is focused on one goal: survival. Let’s contrast that with our current state. We are under assault: socially, economically and in many cases for our very lives. We are in a time of uncertainty and fear is quickly creeping in!

Each day, the news covers stories of panic buyers emptying stores shelves, shortages of critical medical supplies, borders closing, supply trucks delayed, apocalyptic predictions and of course fake news conspiracy theories of all sorts. The latter of which may be entertaining in ordinary times but today serves only to fuel basic human fears resulting in discrimination, violence and racism. It raises the question of where are the leaders, we need to guide us through this crisis?

Crisis Leadership Attributes

First, we need to consider what kind of leadership is effective in a crisis? 

The attributes skilled leaders in crisis management possess typically include being able to:

  • Anticipate what lies ahead of us
  • Navigate people through the crisis and course correct as needed
  • Communicate regularly, decisively, clearly and with reassurance 
  • Listen to all opinions, not only those that agree with you or that you want to hear
  • Learn through the crisis from others and directly (prepare now to use the approach again)
  • Lead directly and lift those around you to do the same

For instance prior to WWII, Winston Churchill was a failure in many areas. His abhorrent views on the use of poisons against “uncivilized tribes”, or of India in the 1930s or the treatment of striking workers in the early 1910s. His tide turned in 1940 when he became prime minister of the UK – during a time of a nation in need. He was widely credited as being a victorious wartime leader playing an important role in defending Europe’s liberal democracy. He later went on to become an accomplished writer (winning the Nobel Prize in Literature). 

Where are we now?

Fast forward eighty or so years, we are confronted with Covid-19 – as of today, it has affected 192 countries infecting over 337,000 and killing over 14,500 people. Like most viruses, it is ruthless and harming the most vulnerable in society. What has been the response of global leaders?

A mixed bag!

Some leaders have been decisively quick imposing social restrictions in order to protect citizens, others have been nonchalant or worse yet downplayed the risks. Some have been visibly clear in their communication and some have been notably absent from public view. 

A few leaders have fumbled the ball! For example, the social backlash on “herd immunity” resulted in a rapid policy change when the extent of predicted deaths became known. Some leaders have blamed another country or a previous government; acted with an overinflated sense of their own leadership ability (resulting in slower containment or actions) or sought to protect the economy before people.

In enterprise, some CEOs have donated resources, time and expertise to help others or sought innovative ways of generating income when traditional revenue sources fell away. Whereas, other CEOs have asked staff to take unpaid leave, substantially cut pay, laid off workers or opportunistically inflated prices on essential items. The difference in approach will have long-term consequences – to the wellbeing of people, the economy and corporate brand values.

Some leaders, thankfully, are being clear, compassionate and direct providing much-needed honesty and reassurance.

Where do we go from here?

We all need and deserve leadership that can manage well through a crisis – panic quickly leads to irrationality which risks our safety, security and health. This crisis, like others before it, will be the making of some and the downfall of others. 

Let’s each do our part now. We need to protect society’s most vulnerable, our selfless healthcare workers, food and medical supplies, essential services and our future. Global leadership may be in crisis but that doesn’t mean we each have to be!

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