What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic
When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer. But behaving in this manner means failing the coronavirus leadership test, because by the time the dimensions of the threat are clear, you’re badly behind in trying to control the crisis. Passing that test requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.
Fiascos ranging from NASA’s Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003 to the 2008 financial system collapse have brought into sharp relief the unique challenge that ambiguous threats pose to leaders: cognitive biases, dysfunctional group dynamics, and organizational pressures push them toward discounting the risk and delaying action, often to catastrophic ends.
It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay. Far too many leaders instead try to send upbeat messages assuring all is well — which, in the current tragedy, has unfortunately led to unnecessary lost life at a scale that may never be accurately counted. But this is by no means the only path for leaders to take. Drawing on the examples of Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minster, this article distils four lessons for leaders in a novel crisis.
“We believe that leadership is strengthened by continually referring to the big picture as an anchor for meaning, resisting the temptation to compartmentalize or to consider human life in statistics alone” say authors Michaela J. Kerrissey and Amy C. Edmondson.
Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis means making oneself available to feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes — to lead with empathy. Perhaps in the coming weeks the unfortunate scale of this pandemic will make empathy easier for many leaders. But awful scale can also have a numbing effect. It will be incumbent on leaders to put themselves in another’s suffering, to feel with empathy and think with intelligence, and then to use their position of authority to make a path forward for us all. Crises of historical proportion can make for leaders of historical distinction, but that is far from guaranteed.