Crisis leadership lessons from COVID-19

17 April 2020

The COVID-19 crisis highlights some important lessons for leading in a crisis. While these lessons are not new they have never been more important. We have also never had an opportunity to compare the leadership approaches of so many different leaders from so many different environments (government, business and not for profit) all addressing the same crisis at the same time. This very real life experiment will be the subject of many leadership studies for years to come.

This short article will look at some of the leadership lessons from the COVID-19 crisis that we have learned thus far.



Credibility – One of the first steps in managing any crisis is having a good understanding of the facts. The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance of relying upon objective, scientifically proven evidence. The management of a crisis is not enhanced through hyperbole. People are looking to the leader of the organization to convey the facts in a calm, considered and objective manner. This crisis has also shown that if done correctly the management of a crisis can enhance the leader’s credibility amongst followers. This has been demonstrated by the solid, steady performance of Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford and Quebec’s Premier, Francois Legault.

Teams – Mid March seems like a long time ago but think back to how critical your team was in pivoting from bricks and mortar to a virtual workplace. Assembling and maintaining a suitable team to respond to crisis has long been a cornerstone of crisis management planning. In assembling a team we are seeing the importance of including subject matter experts. The critical role of subject matter experts is demonstrated daily in the briefings provided to the media by Officers of Health at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. Their calm, objective, scientific perspective has had an important calming effect on the masses. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Thank God for Calm, Competent Deputies” celebrated these professionals stating, “The leaders who have distinguished themselves are rarely the bold, charismatic, impulsive, self-regarding, politically calculating alphas we’ve elected. The real heroes have been, for lack of a better term, career deputies.”

Leading by Example – In early April the BBC reported that Dr. Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s then chief medical officer, had resigned as a result of travelling on two occasions to her country home an hour away from her main family home in Edinburgh. Doing so was a blatant violation of Scotland’s lockdown rules for which she had received a police warning. On the other side of the coin there are many inspiring stories of leaders whose example will inspire confidence in their followers. This week CNN ran a story where the CEO of Activision Blizzard gave his personal cell phone number to his 10,000 employees in an effort to get closer to his workforce. That same story highlights other CEOs that are either making significant financial contributions to the COVID-19 relief effort or like the CEO of Marriott are not taking salary for the rest of the year. While some of these steps are symbolic it does exhibit leadership where everyone is being tested. The bottom line is that the steps you take are being watched closely and they must align not only with the values of your organization but also the direction you have taken in this time of crisis.

Stamina – One of the distinguishing features of this crisis against all others is its length and uncertainty around when it might pass. Crises up to this point have been of a somewhat limited duration. This crisis is likely with us until we can successfully identify, produce and scale a vaccine. While there will be an epidemiological end to the crisis we are unable to predict how long that will be. The duration of the crisis raises certain new considerations for crisis management leaders. First, you must plan for a crisis with different issues arising at different stages including a plan for transition to a post crisis environment. Second, you must be prepared to accept that the health, economic and regulatory landscape in which you are working will change every day requiring agility in your response. Third, you must ensure the mental and physical health of your workforce, your crisis management team and yourself is paramount. The marathon nature of the COVID-19 situation is one where getting rest is as equally as important as hard work. If there is a crisis in need of fresh, creative thinking this is it.

Todd Burke is a Partner in the Ottawa Office of Gowling WLG practicing in the areas of commercial litigation, professional liability and crisis management


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