The Coronavirus Pandemic: A True Test of Crisis Leadership

Why paradoxical leadership is the key to properly leading others through crisis.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

“The best test for whether a leader is exceptional is how they handle a crisis.” As a leadership scholar, I’ve heard variations of this statement a million times.

If this is true, then the coronavirus outbreak and its ongoing implications would appear to be a textbook opportunity to evaluate our leaders. The outbreak is complex, confusing, and our work and family lives will inevitably be impacted.

But before bashing or lauding the actions of your leader, it’s important to clarify what exactly high-quality crisis leadership looks like. It might be more complicated than you first thought.

A crisis situation presents competing tensions galore. The best leaders manage these tensions by embracing paradoxical leadership—behaviors that manage seemingly competing, yet interrelated demands.

Balancing Speed and Accuracy

When a crisis hits, employees want to know what’s going on and what the plan of action is. For example, as the outbreak spreads across the U.S., organizational leaders are struggling to make big decisions because the situation is constantly evolving. Leaders are grappling with weighty decisions, such as travel restrictions, remote work policies, and preemptive cost-cutting solutions.

The challenge for leaders is balancing the need to communicate with employees in a timely manner, yet provide information that is accurate and actually helpful. When leaders wait too long to communicate critical messages, employees fill the void with haphazard assumptions, and they lose faith in their leader’s ability. But when leaders provide half-baked, unclear, or misinformed communique to their employees, it makes it that much harder to overcome the challenges as an organizational unit.

Leaders should proactively consider varying courses of action, ensure that they are in-the-know as critical information surfaces, and then immediately focus their attention on offering timely direction, but never at the expense of accuracy.

Balancing Uncertainty and Clarity

Crises are unfortunate in that they cut to the core of a fundamental psychological need: security. Although leaders might feel compelled to reassure their employees that everything is going to be fine, in reality, they can’t make that promise.

Making statements, for example, about when pre-outbreak policies will go back into effect may assuage employees’ immediate concerns, but it’s a guess at best. What a leader can do is communicate what exactly they are doing to manage the uncertainty. This, in and of itself, is a way to help individuals feel more secure. For example, leaders should be outlining who they are working with or talking to in order to have an evidence-based recommendation for how to overcome each step of the outbreak.

Balancing Details and the Big Picture

Crises tend to have implications at many levels. Specific to the outbreak, it affects individuals’ health and livelihood, organizations’ short-term profitability and long-term survival, and society’s overall health and economic stability. Leaders must carefully explain to employees why and how their choices affect these interrelated systems.

It’s a mistake to only explain to employees how the organization’s decisions affect them individually. For example, it should be clear that the reason employees are being encouraged to work remotely has just as much to do with contributing to the societal-level initiative to “flatten the curve” as it does with employees’ personal health. Relatedly, it would behoove leaders to be transparent and explain to employees that the reason they aren’t being as conservative or generous as other organizations is that they are concerned about the organization’s long-term viability.

Balancing the Past and the Present

When the coronavirus is finally under control, employees will stop working remotely, customers will re-schedule their canceled meetings, and supply chains will eventually catch up. This will actually be the best opportunity to evaluate crisis leadership. We tend to think of crisis leadership as an in-the-moment phenomenon. But this is only partially true.

When the dust clears, everyone will have plenty of time to critique the extent to which their leader was prepared to manage a crisis. It will be at this stage where strong leaders admit their mistakes and create a plan for going forward, while weak leaders will spend so much time covering their tracks or justifying their decisions that they will squander the opportunity to re-group.

Crises, by definition, are complicated and unpredictable. Mistakes are inevitable. Leaders should embrace the mistakes of the past, yet have a clear plan for the future.

Crisis Leadership Is About Balancing Paradox

As employees working through the coronavirus pandemic, I think we can all learn a few valuable lessons as it relates to leadership. Leading a crisis is an imperfect balancing act. Crisis situations are fraught with paradox and only the best can artfully reconcile its inherent contradictions.

Instead of judging your leader on whether or not they did one thing perfectly (e.g., speed), consider evaluating whether they simultaneously did two things well (e.g., speed and accuracy). Further, instead of judging your leader on whether or not their decisions were in your favor (e.g., work-from-home policies), consider evaluating whether the explanations behind their decisions acknowledged the multi-faceted realities of the situation (e.g., organizational survival).

One thing is for sure: I don’t envy anyone in a prominent leadership role right now. By definition, it’s impossible to “solve” paradoxes. All you can really do is acknowledge them and then do your best to keep afloat. My hope is that we—the employees—support our leaders as they manage the coronavirus crisis. Because let’s be honest, no one is perfect.