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COVID-19 has really shone a light on leadership, and we have seen examples of both good and bad.

In a recent article, HBR noted that there are four instinctive behaviours leaders tend to default to in a crisis, and unfortunately, while they may be good qualities for ‘business as usual’, they are not the right ones for a crisis. They also outlined the four behaviours leaders do need during a crisis. When you reflect on those leaders who have shown excellent leadership during this time, both political and in business, you will see that they tick these four behaviours.

During a time of crisis, it takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human instinct to downplay and delay a threat. It takes courage to change your decisions as the situation changes or as new information comes to hand, but that is exactly what leaders need to do.

Here are the instinctive behaviours authors Kerrissey & Edmondson determined you need to avoid and the behaviours you need to demonstrate as a leader in a crisis.


What’s instinctive when facing uncertainty What’s needed in a crisis
Waiting for additional information Acting with urgency
Downplaying the threat and withholding bad news Communicating with transparency
Doubling down to justify your actions Taking responsibility and focusing on solving problems
Staying the course Engaging in constant updating



1. Act with Urgency

Whenever there is ambiguity there is understandably a tendency to wait for more information and clarity. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the hope that greater clarity will ensue is dangerous. This has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when each additional day of delay contributes to exponential consequences.

Acting with urgency means leaders take action without all the information they would dearly like. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is a widely praised example of this. With minimal information, she acted swiftly in New Zealand, describing it as an explicit choice to ‘go hard and go early.’


2. Communicate with Transparency

Communicating bad news is always difficult, particularly because you are conscious of the risk of increasing anxiety or demoralising your staff. It takes wisdom and courage to understand that communicating with transparency actually helps to minimise this risk.

Communicating with transparency means providing honest and accurate descriptions of reality and also providing some hope. It is being as clear as possible about what you know, what you anticipate, and what it means for your people. It is also providing a hopeful vision of the future so that people can better manage the present difficult situation. They have a sense that their hardship now will be worth it.


3. Take Responsibility

Because of the complexity of a crisis, problems will arise regardless of how well a leader acts. How you respond to these mistakes and unexpected challenges is just as important as how you first address the crisis.
You must not revert to defensiveness or blame when mistakes are made. The important response to any issue is to listen, acknowledge, and then focus everyone on solving the problem.


4. Engage in Constant Updating

An all-too-common misconception of good leadership is that a leader must be decisive and then be unrelenting in staying this course. But given the rapid evolution of a crisis, you must constantly update your understanding of probabilities, and of new information. You must utilise expert advisors and seek diverse opinions so that you can update your decisions to be ‘best for what we currently know’.

Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis requires different leadership. Leaders in business and politics need to step up, to feel with empathy and lead with intelligence.  You must use your position of authority to create a path forward that gives your people clarity. You must make yourself available to feel what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. Your empathy will create a level of comfort and certainty.


As this COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, and as the recession deepens the crisis, be sure to sharpen the four behaviours you need at this time. Be an example of good leadership, so that your team feels a level of comfort and confidence. They will appreciate that you are leading from the front.