What can we learn about leadership from the Covid-19 crisis?

As things slowly begin to stabilise and we transition from the depths of the Covid-19 crisis to considering the question of “what now for the business?”, we thought we’d share some of our thoughts around what leaders can learn from the recent crisis. This is based on data we have gathered through pulse surveys we have been running for various organisations during the Covid-19 crisis.

In uncertain times, people look to their leaders for guidance

When disaster strikes, the natural temptation is to run round in circles and start panicking.

The most effective leaders do three things well – they make timely decisions, they provide clarity around direction and they communicate with clarity.

Decision Making

Leaders don’t initially possess any more knowledge than anyone else so effective leaders resist the temptation to react to every input or demand, they are able to slow things down and look through the chaos, they take time to understand the nature of what is happening. To quote a line from the film Shooter, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”.

However, there comes a point where a decision needs to be made. Waiting until you have all the information you think you need is likely to be as damaging as acting too quickly with too little information. Effective leaders are able to strike the balance by making a call based on limited information and resisting the desire to endlessly gather more information.

Providing Direction

People quickly need direction and they look to their leaders for clarity around where to head. The most effective leaders take what they know, recognising that it might not be perfect, and outline a plan of intent. This won’t include much detail in the early days as plans always change as events unfold – to use a military term “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. The intent is key. Effective leaders begin to outline the broad direction of where the focus should be, they don’t dictate the micro detail of what people should do. This can cause frustration as people are seeking absolute clarity and certainty, but all leaders need to do at this stage is point people in what they think is the right direction. The message also needs to be simple and understandable so everyone gets it – think “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives”.


In the early stages of crises, effective leaders need to provide lots of regular information. This has the benefit of helping everyone in the organisation understand the nature of what is happening and where they need to be focussing their efforts. It also helps other managers make decisions that are in line with the overall direction. We have seen that where senior managers are communicating regularly, people feel reassured that ‘someone is in charge’. Where leaders go absent it creates uncertainty, anxiety and people start to think they are deserting the sinking ship without telling anybody else!

The most effective leaders communicate regularly and they use a variety of communication channels to ensure they reach everyone they need to. We have seen frustration where people feel they are not receiving the same messages as other people in the organisation and this is often because line managers are failing to communicate effectively. The most effective leaders ensure that managers at all levels are passing on key information.

Of course, communication is a two-way street, so effective leaders also need to listen and respond to concerns, but we’ll come to that shortly.

Change creates stress and anxiety so leaders need to be tuned in to how their team are feeling

Many people’s lives have been thrown into chaos. Some are working from home, which can be an isolating experience; some people have experienced a reduction in salary; some people have been asked to take on roles they have never done before; some people are covering for colleagues who have been furloughed; and of course many have experienced the sheer fear or feeling their lives are in danger.   

Human beings are creatures of habit and a change of routine or introduction of something unfamiliar throws us into chaos. When we perceive things are outside of our control, or we feel threatened, we experience stress, which creates an emotional and physiological reaction. This causes us to feel weird and act weird. Some people go manic, some go ultra quiet and introspective, one day we can be up, the next we can be down.

The most effective leaders are able to tune in to the specific thoughts and feelings that each of their team members is experiencing on a daily basis. In order to do this they need to break away from the minutiae of organising stuff and check in with each team member individually to talk about how they are rather than what they are doing. They offer support to people and reassure them that they are doing the best they can do and that they have their back.

Adopting a new way of doing things takes extra effort

As well as causing anxiety, having to learn to do things differently requires an increase in effort. Think about learning any new skill – the experts make it look easy whilst you seem to be expending a huge amount of effort. This is because when we are learning something new we have to simply invest more effort into thinking about what we are doing.

Working from home for the first time leads to extra effort with regard to setting up your office and tech. No-one knows the detail of what we need to do so we’ve had to have even more meetings than usual – once we learned to ‘Zoom’. And all whilst dealing with the kids who aren’t in school.

The most effective leaders spend time recognising this extra effort. In some of our pulse surveys for the NHS, the effort that has gone into organising free parking, free food and things such as free Easter Eggs was huge yet the feedback we have seen confirms that people found this extremely positive and made it worth the effort. Conversely, where people feel isolated and that their efforts are going unrecognised they quickly become demotivated and disengaged.

Leaders don’t always know the best way to do things

It’s highly unlikely that leaders know all of the answers at the best of times, let alone when faced with a totally unique situation such as Covid-19. A common mistake many managers make is feeling they have to know all the answers and this can lead them to provide direction or delegate actions that are either confusing or simply wrong and can often lead to them having to change direction or reverse course.

Leaders have a fine line to tread, but people need to feel they can trust in their leaders, even if they can’t provide all the answers. In fact, saying “I don’t know yet” can actually inspire more trust than bullsh*tting through it. People see through the waffle and they are quick to pick up on inconsistent messages and u-turns. The most effective leaders are honest about the situation – good or bad – they are open and transparent.

The most effective leaders also listen to people. In the early stages of crises, listening attentively is how leaders signal that they are taking people’s concerns on board. As things become clearer, listening is also crucial in finding solutions to problems. Again this is about putting ego to one side and engaging with the team to find the best solution rather than imposing the leader’s solution.

Effective leaders also empower people to act. They involve team members, listen to their ideas, generate consensus and then allow them to experiment, as long as it is in accordance with the broad mission. We have seen feedback where people feel energised as they have been able to implement change that they have been trying to implement for years. The crisis has effectively reduced the risk of making a mistake so the inertia that normally surrounds decision making has gone away.

Crisis Leadership Behaviours