Leadership Learnings from the COVID-19 Pandemic (so far!)

By |2022-04-23T19:33:45+00:00December 1st, 2021|0 Comments

What have we learned about crisis leadership during this global health emergency?  Two things have really stood out.

First, it highlighted the need for information – situational awareness – as perhaps never before.

Second, it shined a light on a constellation of skills under the broad umbrella of what we now call “Vitamin C.”

Situational Awareness

In a crisis, the first physiological response for everyone, including leaders, is we revert to our reptilian brain  The reptilian brain filters all incoming sensory messages and determines whether something is dangerous or not and produces our fight-or-flight reactions. Helpful when being chased by a saber-toothed tiger but in a crisis, it can lead to poor decision making. How do you calm the Reptilian Brain? Good, solid information – situational awareness.

Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information regarding an incident. Getting your hands on situational awareness requires two activities:

  • Collect: Observe, acquire and compile the information
  • Process: Assess the information and orient yourself to all the possible impacts

Where do you find good, accurate and credible information? That was one of the first leadership challenges – a brand new disease, and lots of confusing and conflicting information. Medical science and research are usually done in private and information is released after years of study and trials. In the pandemic, all that messy science was done in front of an anxious public who then interpreted press releases and interviews into messages that fit their beliefs. Rule number one: Leaders must find credible, trusted sources and must carefully review and validate all information.

Another information challenge in a fast-moving medical crisis is that information changes or may be proven inaccurate over time. Science is imperfect and sometimes slow in the discovery phase, and it takes time until “everything” is known. Medical discovery is iterative – the more you learn, the more different things you learn. Therefore, leaders must be flexible and adjust plans as necessary. This can lead some in the public to think that we don’t know what we are doing and that we are changing our minds to fit the circumstance, not understanding that new information and discoveries can change the response. How we communicate new information is critical.

The Best Leaders Have Had Lots of Vitamin C!

When evaluating leadership in the pandemic, it  turns out that the best leaders in the pandemic have had what we are now calling Vitamin C:

      • Compassion – Humanity, empathy, humility and trust
      • Command – A plan, process and team; leading and making timely decisions
      • Correction – In real time; they practiced the “Power of the Pivot”
      • Communication – Accurate, authentic and timely
      • Caring – For themselves and others


Compassion: Humanity, Empathy, Humility & Trust

When the foe is something you can’t see, could be everywhere or nowhere, compassion is the number one skill. Successful leaders have been authentic and humane. They are guided by a strong ethical framework that informed their decision-making and through that, are able to build trust.

One of the things that happened for many of us who worked remotely, is we all started to see our leaders not just as someone in charge, but as humans with families and personal struggles. How many Zoom meetings have you been in when the baby is crying in the background and the room behind them is a mess? Suddenly everyone was human. Being real is one of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence, a critical skill for a successful leader.

Command: A Defined Structure, Process & Decision-Making

Organizations with a clear and defined crisis process, plan and structure fared much better, especially in the beginning as the world swirled in confusion and fear. Trained teams were able to stand up quickly because they knew their roles and responsibilities. There was support for intelligence gathering, which then in turn facilitated more timely decisions. For larger organizations, it was critical to have a centralized decision-making authority for a consistent response. For those organizations with multiple locations, it was essential that authorities and responsibilities were granted to other sites so local leaders could respond to their situations. This required empowering team members as leaders.

The use of team position backups proved to be a critical management skill, regularly rotating staff leaders so they did not burn out. Leaders who took care of themselves and others by taking breaks and having their backups fill-in rather than “toughing it out” performed better in the long-term.

Correction: Learn the Power of the Pivot

The power of the pivot was on full display as thousands of organizations closed and sent their workers home. For example, it was amazing to witness the power of YES and executives – suddenly everything seemed possible! Successful leaders were adaptive at all levels and agility was key in their response. If it didn’t work at first, try something else. Don’t fall in love with your ideas – stay flexible and keep moving.

Communication: Honesty Speaks Volumes

When you are facing an invisible foe, what do we want from our leaders? Communication that is frequent and honest. A new virus makes it even more challenging – science is iterative and can change over time as we learn more. Speak with candor and frankness about the uncertainties that exist and don’t downplay the risk. Communication should acknowledge the situation and express concern and condolences when appropriate. Communicate repeatedly with all your key stakeholders.

Caring: For Ourselves & Others

The pandemic has shown that we need and want empathy and caring from our leaders. The best leaders support and value their people and themselves. We all need to be in intact and hopefully sane at the end of this ordeal and that requires planning for the long game – how many times have you heard over the past two years that this is a marathon, not a sprint? We all want to be standing when this is over. How can that happen? Start with yourself – lead by example: Avoid burnout. Ensure that trusted alternates are informed and empowered to make decisions. Enhance access to EAP services to better care for your people. The goal is that we will all be whole at the end of pandemic.

Going Forward

We are now facing a new and perhaps more challenging variant – Omicron. Researchers around the world are rushing to answer three critical questions – Is the new variant:

  • More transmissible?
  • More infectious?
  • Able to evade vaccines and other therapeutics?

Again, leaders around the world must work to gain situational awareness and use all the Vitamin C skills described in this article. I know we are tired; we want this over….but the virus is not done with us. Remember that public health measures still work – masking, distancing, ventilation. Even if the vaccines and/or antivirals are less effective, they will very likely prevent serious illness and death – so get vaccinated if you are not and get boosted if you are! Remember that we are not starting at zero – it is not March 2020 (even though it might feel that way). Be kind. This too will pass.


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About the Author:

Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of crisis management, continuity planning and exercise design. She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc, (EMSS) and since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients in four continents.

Ms. Phelps is the author of four books on crisis management and exercise design – all are available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/ycgruk3l She can be reached at [email protected] or www.ems-solutionsinc.com.

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