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Coronavirus: Leadership At All Levels

Posted by Thomas Edwards on April 1, 2020 10:40 AM EDT
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Enormous socio-economic crisis such as hurricanes, disasters caused by nature and also by humans and pandemics such as the COVID-19 issue we as a world and country are now dealing with....

....create a bias to action and to great leadership.

While many business organizations, governmental entities, and nonprofits seek great leaders to drive change, strategic initiatives and operational excellence, urgent situations such as COVID-19 require leadership at all levels.  Time will tell how well our country and world pulls this off, but certainly the model is appropriate for all manner of socio-economic issues whether that be reducing substance use disorder, improving prosperity, creating better and more civic engaged societies or improving results in collaborative endeavors.

A recent Knowledge@Wharton e-newsletter captured the essence of why and how multi-level, multi-organizational leadership has to be key.  The remaining questions are how to adapt this to other similar challenging issues and how to ignite that within organizations, across organizations and communities.

In italics below are some of the key concepts directly from the newsletter.  From them emerges a model of how this can help with our current coronavirus pandemic and maybe other socio-economic issues as well.

We of course still hunger for leadership from the top – would our wartime president please ramp-up ventilators and coordinate clampdowns, for heaven’s sake – but we also want leadership from throughout our ranks. Don’t we all bear a personal duty to step forward now, to make a difference when we can make a difference, however modest our scope for doing so?

Of course, and here’s why. We know from ample research that leadership makes the greatest difference when the world around us is uncertain, when we are unsure about what lies ahead. We also know that the impact will be greatest when it comes not only from the apex but also from the middle ranks and front lines. Not just from public officials and chief executives, but also from those who help run restaurants, service hospitals, and direct schools or just about anything.

Think, Communicate and Decide


As a case in point on thinking strategically: When Vanguard Group faced the economy’s near total meltdown after the failure of Lehman in 2008, its chief executive slashed salaries but laid nobody off. He theorized that when the equity market eventually came back — and it did, of course — he would need all his people to service the returning clients. Vanguard is now one of the largest investment companies on earth, with $6.2 trillion in assets under management. (In 2005, before the financial crisis, that number was less than $1 trillion.)


Communicating persuasively: We interviewed 14 corporate CEOs in 2009 on what they were doing to weather the financial crisis, and they all said: Connect with others. “If in doubt,” reported the CEO of aerospace company Northrop Grumman, “communicate.” Explained the top executive of Travelers insurance: “transparency in troubled times really matters!”

Then there’s the question of where to act. The closer to home, the research confirms, the better, since that’s the place that we have the most immediate, best informed, and greatest impact. Intensive-care nurses can strengthen patient safety on their floors; grocery stockers can ensure safe produce is on their shelves; auto companies can assemble life-saving respirators in their plants.

A Personal Checklist

Here’s a personal checklist for exercising your own leadership, whatever your rank or role in life, when we all need it:

·       I can help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus in my own neighborhood or workplace if I act now. Check.

·       Here, as I see it, is a short list of my actions that will likely help most. Check.

·       Let’s make sure that nothing on my list can worsen the health or safety of those around me. Check.

·       I will take at least one of those actions today. Double check.

Most of us are not fully or formally in charge of a whole lot, but if we can make a difference, now is the time to step forward to do so, and to do so close to home. In good times, we can rely more on our boss or others to get things done, but that’s no longer enough.


It is our own leadership moment too. We are all in charge.

In closing, this opinion piece has great application in the context it is written-dealing with the critical actions needed to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic with minimal lives lost and minimized damage to the economy.  However, seen from a different set of contexts this is applicable wisdom worth putting in place.



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