Resilient Leadership in a Crisis

Helping constituents heal and rebuild trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a cry for leadership in an era already rife with leadership deficits. Devastating to public health and economies on a global scale, strong leadership is needed to avert disaster and facilitate societal functioning. Under the pressure of colossal disasters leaders must act quickly to stabilize the situation and solve problems. But they must do something else to be effective leaders: they must address the emotional needs of their constituents. In turn, leaders’ own psyches and psychologies should be robust and resilient to allow them to lend their strength to augment their people’s efforts to move forward. Since every leader has their ups and downs (states), and their personalities and psychological makeup a patchwork of varied strengths and vulnerabilities (traits), a roadmap for empathy may help leaders more swiftly succeed in coming to the aid of their constituents, thereby fulfilling their mandate.

Leadership Skills to Lead in a Crisis

COVID-19 is a disease that attacks multiple body systems, from the ability to breathe and take in oxygen, to the blood to circulate normally, to direct attacks on major organs, including the brain – leading many victims to die or become crippled. As such, it serves as a parallel on its effect on human social systems, cities, nations, and economies. Disruptions to food supply, to wide swathes of societal functions from schools to hospitals to policing, not to mention the crash of employment in general, poses dire challenges to leadership at every level, from businesses to government. What can make the difference between demise and moving forward is good leadership.

Leaders in a crisis need a complex, and wide-ranging set of skills. They need to be smart, yet humble; emotionally connected, yet clear-thinking; competent and task-oriented, yet able to tell a good story. They have to be decisive and risk-taking, yet able to persuade and gather consensus. Above all they must be worthy of trust. Notice I say “worthy of trust,” not “trustworthy.” What I mean to emphasize is not that the leader should appear to merit trust, but actually be worthy of it by their authentic care for the well-being of those they lead.

Of the many, complex, and at times paradoxical traits and behaviors required of leaders to get their constituents through a crisis, I focus here on two, related qualities: the ability to grieve, and what I consider the other side of that coin, the capacity to inspire trust.

The Psychology of Grieving and Sensemaking

Because we are human, our emotions and our thinking capacity are closely knitted together. Although our emotions and animal reactions to threat may either slow us down or inappropriately speed us up in irrational reactivity, the bottom line is that eventually our reasoning and our instincts come together for a more robust response to problems. Humans are not stupid. We know when we are having wool pulled over our eyes, and we know when someone is working for our interests, or against them.

In a catastrophe, one of the first things we try to do is to orient, to try to figure out what is going on. Sensemaking is the sophisticated outcome of orienting, of collecting perceptual, physical, emotional, and rational data to reach a conclusion about what is happening, and why.

Because we are human, we must make sense of things in terms that matter to us. What does this [crisis] mean for my family, for my loved ones? How will I protect the people and relationships who are important to me, who are vital to my well-being? This instinct for attachment extends itself outward from family relationships to just about everything else in our lives – from attachment to people to attachment to ideologies and values. In a catastrophe, there are inevitable losses: the loss of life, the loss of a job, the loss of a world order, in extreme cases. To the extent that people experience these losses as some form of damage to themselves, to their loved ones and their communities, it is vital that leaders help the victims of these losses make sense of what has been lost, and to grieve that loss. No less important is explaining why a bad thing has happened, because we as humans are instinctively trying to learn from failures even as our emotions and bodies are struggling to cope with loss and change. It is only when body (emotions) and mind come together in understanding, that sensemaking can occur, and people can pivot to move forward.

New Zealand Mosque Massacre

Jacinda Ardern, the 34-year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand, instinctively knew this was what she had to do in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.

When an Australian white supremacist killed over 50 Muslim worshipers and injured another 50 during their Friday prayers, first, she articulated her nation’s grief and horror, by saying “we will remember the tears of our nation.” Next, she made sense of the event by defining it as a vicious act of racist extremism that violated the identity and values of New Zealanders. Then, having successfully helped her nation grieve and making sense of what happened, she redirected their energy and efforts to the future. “We reject you,” she said, to violent extremism and religious intolerance; and called on New Zealanders to renew their values to making the country a “welcoming, kind and compassionate place.” She pointed the way for ordinary people to repurpose the agony of violence by finding practical and immediate ways to take “small acts of kindness and compassion” that would reverse the impact of the crime. Making her presentation with passion and grief, she convinced her Parliament to ban assault weapons within weeks of the assault.

Grieving as a Society

The New Zealand attacker emulated Anders Breivik, the far-right perpetrator of a 2011 youth camp massacre in Norway. Like New Zealand, Norway then was confronted with a crime of unprecedented violence perpetrated by an individual. 9/11 traumatized Americans, because Americans going about their business were attacked on their own soil by foreign agents. The loss of innocence was unique in American history. Pearl Harbor was an act of war and a lethal surprise, but that was an act of aggression against a military base 2000 miles from the mainland in the backdrop of global war, 60 years earlier (granting how shocking it was to Americans, then). In contrast, 9/11 felt like the loss of innocence – the previously unchallenged sense of safety-within-borders was shattered by the attack.

Anyone who has suffered a break-in has experienced this sense of loss, the loss of something valued and comfortable and comforting. The sense of hearth and home, of being safe and being able to let your guard down. Most people respond to break-ins by shoring up their defenses in some way, to recover that safety as one of the most desirable conditions we have. Hunter-gatherers sought caves that could shelter them from storms and predators, and where they could pursue hobbies, tell stories, and other leisure activities that presuppose adequate safety and control.

But it isn’t only the loss of habitat that can feel devastating and unsafe. The 2004 movie “In Good Company” tapped into the anxiety of a loss of culture, the culture in which people who grew up in a firm could expect to keep their jobs and seniority for decades. Millennials who grew up afterwards can only guess at the cultural sense of loss to millions of people who had viewed jobs as lifetime security.

Because grieving beloved people involves powerful, almost overwhelming feelings, culturally we do not typically associate it with other, more abstract types of attachments, such as attachments to ideals, aspirations and ambitions, to values and principles, or traditions and customs. But people develop collective, societal attachments along with personal ones, which can be as powerful or sometimes even more so.

Jacinda Ardern led New Zealanders as a society and nation by helping them grieve, first by framing the attack as a violent affront to the nation’s identity and values as a tolerant, open, and humanistic society. Her actions, her demeanor, her priorities and her affect all expressed her own authentic feelings of horror, loss, and sympathy for the victims – which in itself demonstrably rejected the racist hate underlying the attack. “You (the perpetrator) are not us,” she said; “[the victims] are us.”

Leadership and Trust

By demonstrating extraordinary leadership in one of New Zealand’s greatest crises, by, among other things, helping her community grieve a violent loss, Ardern had built so much trust from her constituents that she was able to execute one of the world’s most swift and aggressive responses to COVID – also the most successful — leading to its “elimination” within a month. Once again Ardern was able to unite her country and recruit citizens’ easy compliance and cooperation to draconian measures. She did this by making it understandable, based on science and facts, why the specific behaviors and sacrifices were being asked of people; by being clear, transparent, and focused in the message; by demonstrating empathy and a sense of truly caring about her people; and by linking the effort to a higher civic purpose, the need for individuals to act in ways that support positive social cohesion and collective well-being. Angela Merkel was able to do the exact same thing to her considerably larger country of 80+ million (compared to under 5 million New Zealanders), leading to Germany being the European country with the lowest number of deaths in the first wave of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.

Sensemaking in a Crisis

Sensemaking in a crisis is extraordinarily important to the building of trust. It is essential for a cohesive, and ultimately resilient response to a crisis. A lack of a sense of meaning, priority, or a clear idea of what is the larger good to be attained –whether that is the survival of the community, overcoming tribulation, or the protection of an ideal – can result in in breakdown and chaos. Resilience and recovery become harder. Without a sense of meaning, higher purpose, or a unified path or solution, multiple narratives and focuses emerge and are chased by various groups pursuing various priorities, leading to fragmentation of the whole, making it difficult and confusing for people to know what to do. The United States is the largest nation worldwide on the verge of a fragmented, uncoordinated “reopening” of societies from COVID lockdowns, with competing priorities, directives and ideologies making it less likely that the country can be unified in its narrative, and therefore its behaviors.

I do not mean to suggest that there is ever a single right path in any given crisis. It is precisely because of the unknown — because every decision involves risks and sacrifices — that a good leader must be able to unify people by convincingly demonstrating why one path should be followed and not another. When, as in the case of the coronavirus, societies must act with imperfect knowledge, leaders must be transparent about what they know and what they do not know and how they come to the decision they make. This is where being worthy of trust is critical, because when a leader is acting, to some extent blindly, they must demonstrate that although mistakes might be made the leader is acting to the best of their ability in the interest of the group they lead – and not serving any other agenda.

Crisis Leadership Behaviors to Foster Resilience

  • Be honest
    • Trust requires people to believe you mean what you say, and that you will not be deceptive. During COVID people trusted leaders who told the unvarnished truth in terms of numbers of infections and deaths; while leaders who attempted to minimize or conceal the problem, only to have to reveal a greater problem later, lost credibility.
    • For example, an April 2020 survey of Republican governor Mike DeWine of Ohio had 85% approval for how he was handling the pandemic, including supporting the restrictions he was imposing. 90% of respondents to this survey trusted him to provide accurate information compared to 25% Trump.
  • Be rational, give facts
    • Leaders who explained their decisions based on facts and logical thinking, and who demonstrated that their views were informed by science, statistics, and the guidance of experts were trusted more than those who could not establish a rational, fact-based foundation to their thinking.
    • In other words, people trust leaders who offer the inconvenient truth more than leaders who offer short-term relief at the expense of downstream peril.
    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with a Ph.D. in quantum physics, was the first world leader to tell her people that up to 70% of them would likely get infected if they did not take measures to slow down the pandemic. Less than 7 weeks later Germany had one of the lowest fatality rates in the world and its leader highly trusted.
  • Be real, but care
    • Just as young children and dogs often know whether you like them or not, people have a sixth sense for ferreting out what is inauthentic. Therefore, leaders and everyone else would gain more credibility being authentic than expressing feelings they do not feel.
    • That said, caring for others, as in the people one is leading, is not so much a sentiment as a decision.
    • It is possible to cultivate empathy, kindness and compassion; and it behooves leaders to do their best to do so.
    • Unless leaders can acknowledge their people’s losses and help them to grieve, forward movement can be confused and hampered.
  • Be transparent
    • A key tenet of interest-based negotiation theory is that people will likely treat you as you treat them. To the extent that good information is key to good decisions, being transparent with what you know is the first step in getting others to share what they know.
    • Transparency also signals the willingness to be vulnerable, which is key to trust.
    • Transparency is a form of sharing information and decision-making, which is ultimately a community concern. It is difficult to get people to do what you want them to do in the long-term if they don’t agree with you. It doesn’t pay to withhold information that affects people’s interests.
  • Point to purpose
    • The capacity to unite many individuals is the key function of a leader. While occasionally it can be done via charisma, that is to say, people may sometimes flock to a leader due to the leader’s personality or their perceived strengths, a shared value, goal, or common purpose is more effective in bringing people to act together.
    • The leader’s talent is in discerning what indeed is the deeper sense or need of a group of people, rather than persuading others to the leader’s agenda. Powerful speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” were effective in changing a culture because they captured the previously unexpressed needs of the society at that time, and framed those needs into the higher purpose that the society wanted to move toward.
  • Get help
    • A true leader knows their limitations and does not fall prey to narcissistic invulnerability. No single individual has everything they need to lead a large group of people.
    • Understanding your own limitations and knowing when the expertise of others will enhance decision-making processes is a critical skill.
    • Having or proliferating a network of people who are better than you at what they do is one of the assets a leader brings to the table.
    • Psychological, emotional, and interpersonal skills, not to mention skills in personal regulation and self-management are among the most powerful assets a leader can have, and which it is more than appropriate to seek help in enhancing in the service of those one must lead.