Lessons in Leadership from COVID-19

The past few months have been a spectacular case study in leadership during a crisis. From world leaders, governors, company executives, and more, we’ve observed the full spectrum of both good and bad leadership. The pandemic has reminded us that during a crisis, great leadership is paramount, and the people that we choose for positions of power have a profound impact on our lives and our future.

For decades to come, people will write volumes about the COVID-19 pandemic and the leaders that helped us to navigate the crisis. It is in our nature to idolize leaders that unite us and help us succeed during challenging times. For example, Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban missile crisis, or FDR’s leadership during World War II. I am sure that around 2030, COVID-19, the movie, starring Christian Bale (I’ll let you decide who he plays), will be released. Rather than analyze particular individuals or decisions, I want to share four leadership qualities that have inspired me during this crisis:

  1. Great leaders point the way AND take action: great leaders help us focus our resources toward a vision of the future. They explain that our goal is to reach (drawing on Kennedy again) the moon, or perhaps to get to an adequate number of accurate tests to reopen sections of the US economy. However, pointing the way is not enough; they also take action. Leaders can’t possibly do all of the work themselves, but they take the steps necessary to put everyone in motion to make their vision a reality. In contrast, weak leaders either lack a vision of what we need to achieve, or they provide a vision but fail to take action.
  2. Great leaders take responsibility: if you’re in a leadership position, the buck stops with you. You are responsible for the failures of your organization, even if you are not aware that they are happening. If people screw up under your watch, you need to step up and take responsibility for the failing, apologize, and begin taking the necessary steps to correct the problem. In contrast, weak leaders try to pass the blame onto others, diminishing themselves, and losing our respect.
  3. Great leaders earn and build our trust: great leaders know that they must earn our trust by telling us the truth even when it’s difficult. They understand that once our trust is violated, it is almost impossible to repair. When they build an organization, they cultivate trust throughout the organization, creating a strong foundation. On the contrary, weak leaders betray our trust, causing us to question their every word. When they build organizations, they construct a flimsy foundation built on fear that crumbles when placed under the weight of a crisis.
  4. Great leaders remain calm under pressure: great leaders have a way of handling high stakes situations with poise. When they encounter difficulty, they don’t become flustered or angry; they instead handle it with grace. We look up to them because we wish we could handle the pressure with the same level of calmness. In contrast, weak leaders lose their cool quickly and lash out in anger. Their instability causes us to look elsewhere for our north star of leadership.

I also want to caveat that great leaders can come from anywhere; position, title, and prestige are not necessary. For example, the amazing doctors and nurses that show up to work day after day during this crisis, in many cases sacrificing their safety, embody the qualities listed above. Many of them have died trying to save strangers, and in my opinion, we have not done enough to recognize their contribution. I think after this crisis is over, we should declare a national health worker’s day to honor their sacrifice.

It’s hard to imagine a more significant test of leadership than a global pandemic and economic shutdown. This crisis is far from over, and our chosen leaders now navigate an impossible balancing act between economic catastrophe and accelerating the death rate. While the outcome is uncertain, I am hopeful that we will emerge from the other side a stronger nation and global community. Let us never forget the leadership lessons of this crisis and the reality that the leaders we choose to run our organizations and our governments have a profound impact on our lives and our future.

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