3 Things Effective Leaders Do in a Crisis

How leaders are (and aren't) coping with COVID-19.

Posted May 11, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic presents major challenges for leaders at all levels, from heads of state to school principals. Why do some leaders shine during a crisis while others fail?

The word crisis derives from the Greek for decision. In a crisis, such as the current pandemic, conditions for decision-making are harsh.

High stakes: Left unchecked, COVID-19 will kill unacceptable numbers of citizens. But long-term lockdown could kill the economy. 

Sparse data: In just a few weeks, scientists have learned much about how COVID-19 spreads. But no cure has yet been found and there is scant basis on which to assess future risk.

Need for speed: When the number of infected can double in days, decisions must be made fast.

However, these conditions apply equally to all leaders. Why, then, are some coping better than others?

Lean

Our first thought is to attribute the variance to individual differences. Some leaders are seen as particularly good at assimilating complex data, others as especially impulsive under pressure. But perhaps a more significant factor is the systems available to leaders and how they use them.

George W. Bush’s leadership after 9/11 was widely praised and his leadership after Hurricane Katrina widely criticized. Researchers who compared his performance across the two crises argue that this difference was due largely to the preparedness of relevant advisory systems and how Bush mobilized them.

Similar differences may account for some of the praise of Merkel’s leadership and critique of Trump’s. Leaders need strong and well-prepared systems on which to lean when the going gets tough.

Distribute

In a crisis, leaders are bombarded by data, interests, and pressures from multiple sources. The task of identifying which decisions are matters of life and death and which less urgent can itself seem overwhelming. As Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman has shown, when we’re stressed, we tend to think intuitively rather than systematically. This makes us more susceptible to biased thinking. Moreover, decision-making is tiring. When decision fatigue sets in, our capacity for planning decreases. Leaders need to distribute their decision-making energy wisely.

In a crisis, it is tempting to make smaller, tactical decisions first and postpone bigger strategic ones. Effective leaders do the opposite. They distribute the cognitive load over time and between people. When doing so, it is essential that they include contrarians and nay-sayers. As social psychologist Irving Janis showed with respect to the Kennedy administration's decision-making during the Bay of Pigs crisis, groupthink sets in and alternative courses of action are overlooked.

The leaders most criticized in recent weeks have been those who seem to be avoiding tough decisions or diverting attention from bad ones. Politicians who exaggerate their success in combating the virus, like the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, or who blame others for its spread, like Donald Trump, are viewed with particular suspicion. Conversely, those who admit mistakes and correct them, like Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, are particularly appreciated.

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Much anxiety during a crisis derives from uncertainty about what will be happening next, and what this will mean for us and those close to us. We need to hear from our leaders not only what has been decided, and why, but also what has not yet been decided and by when it will be.

Israel’s minister of education was heavily criticized for announcing that some grades would be returning to school the following week, but not saying when other grades would return or what would be done to minimize the virus’s spread among returning students. In contrast, the German government’s schedule for a gradual easing of lockdown included details not only of which activities would be permitted when but also of the dates by which decisions about further easing would be made.

Three lessons for leaders

The examples above highlight three key areas on which leaders can focus to improve their performance in a crisis: Invest in the quality and preparedness of advisory systems; distribute decision-making responsibilities over time and among a diverse team, and inform people not only of what has been decided but also of what hasn’t. Attention to these areas is especially important during a crisis. But it is almost as important during “business as usual.”

In uncertain times we look to leaders to reduce future uncertainty. But to paraphrase Einstein on the virtues of simplicity: We appreciate most of all those leaders who reduce uncertainty as much as possible—but not more so.