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How to lead in the time of COVID-19

How to lead in the time of COVID-19

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Timothy M. Franz
Timothy M. Franz

Let’s face reality: It is pretty easy to be a decent leader when everything is going right — when you have a good team, the tasks are easy, and things are going well with your organization and in the external environment. But, as the Martin Luther King Jr. quote implies, adversity has a way of revealing one’s true leadership, for better or worse. Some leaders rise to the crisis and leverage their strengths, while in others, it can expose weaknesses that perhaps were less impactful in good times but now make them potentially harmful.

During this pandemic, we’re noticing a magnification of abilities (or lack thereof) among leaders in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (or “VUCA”), environment in which we all find ourselves. Simply put, this means that for strong leaders, strengths are even more on display than usual, and for weak or dysfunctional leaders, flaws are amplified and also more visible.

For example, if a leader is normally a good listener, in the current crisis that person will likely become an even better listener, focusing and even improving their active and empathetic listening skills. Conversely, if a leader is a poor listener normally, in this situation it is likely that the person’s listening will worsen and as a result may miss much of what staff say and feel. Further, if a leader’s listening was influenced before by self-interest, rigidity and lack of empathy, these dysfunctions are probably more prominent now given the added stress.

We also believe the role of a leader has fundamentally changed in one key way. Before, leaders engaged with their team primarily around work matters. Their communications, coaching, focus and availability were almost all in support of the work. Most leaders only brought up personal issues with their followers if those issues affected work.

Seth Silver
Seth Silver

Now, however, leaders must engage and inspire professionally and also personally. Gone are the boundaries that dictated that it is fine to discuss the job while avoiding discussions about personal lives. In normal times, we compartmentalize our work and home lives. But now we are affected in new and often traumatic ways, which adversely impact work and home (which were always intertwined to some extent but now are really indivisible). So leaders who want to be effective, who want to rise to the needs of the occasion, must understand that new behaviors are required. They must show empathy. They must reach out to their followers and support them professionally and personally.

One example of excellent leadership in the national spotlight is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Few had heard of him before. Now, many in our country crave his calm, informed advice and listen to news stories that summarize his briefings. He has shown true leadership in this crisis: He’s blunt and honest, yet gentle and empathetic. He’s knowledgeable and sticks mostly to facts and evidence. He demonstrates care and compassion. And when forced to contradict others, there is respect, acknowledgement of intended optimism, and praise for what is going right. We all need to act a little more like Dr. Fauci.

Given what is happening, here are some practical suggestions for leaders who want to “rise to the occasion” and be helpful to their followers during this crisis:

  1. Reflect on and control for your weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. Often we can mask them and lean more heavily on our strengths to succeed. However, our weaknesses may be the behaviors that are being magnified during this time. Make sure that you’re leveraging your strengths while being especially mindful about your weaknesses.
  2. Examine your decision making. In times of crisis, some leaders are decisive. Others can be paralyzed, and decisions may stall. Make sure that you are not the one who is paralyzed to the point to being unable to act.
  3. Professional and personal check-ins. Check in regularly with your followers both professionally and personally. Many of the jobs that people used to do have now changed dramatically. Some may need more help than others at adapting to these changes. In addition, check in personally. Maybe they have a family member who is in a high-risk role, or they care for an older adult who is sick. Show your empathy and let them know that you understand, that you care, that you are available to talk, vent or support in any way you reasonably can. As stated, this is not the time for the usual boundaries — inquiries on how your staff is doing personally are needed and welcome.
  4. Keep your team in touch. The virtual communication tools that we have can help your team to see one another, even if it’s on a computer screen. Keeping team relationships strong will help everyone be more successful as we progress through this.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. On-going communication is always important, and over-communicating by any medium is even more important during these volatile times.
  6. Use active and empathic listening. Remember: “Listening is the currency of care.” As a leader, listening shows you care. Make sure to use your best listening skills. Empathize with your team and strive to hear the emotional content of their sharing. Summarize what you’ve heard for clarity. Let them know that you are listening and really hearing their needs and concerns.
  7. Stay disciplined. Make sure to set up a daily routine that allows time for you, as a leader, to attend both to your followers and to your own self-care. Quiet reading, exercise, enough sleep, regular walking, whatever it takes for you to deal with the stress and ensure you are fully present mentally when communicating with your team.
  8. Use humor. Make sure to encourage some laughter within your team. Humor is great for stress relief, maintaining perspective, and making our lives better. As one US senator once put it: “Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.”
  9. Ask for feedback. Although it may be awkward to ask, it is important to let your team know that you are more open than usual to learning what you are doing well and where you can improve. Refining your leadership to the needs of the moment is critical, and like anything else where improvement is desired, feedback is the best method known to achieve improved performance. In short, swallow your pride and ask how you are doing and where you could change to be a better leader for your team at this time.
  10. Praise, praise, praise. Encouragement and recognition of your team members are always important leadership behaviors, and even more important now. Make sure to tell them what’s going well, and give them that ongoing support and positive feedback that we all crave, especially in a crisis.

Here is an analogy. It’s as if we are all on a long space voyage, in our very own space ship (our home), and communicating back to others on Earth (friends, family, work colleagues) only through devices like the phone or computer screen. We are alone in our capsule, but connected to everyone we want through technology. And our mission is to get through this difficult period and help others along the way. For leaders, since you can’t be there in person, it is crucial to be very human, share your vulnerability, connect at both the work and personal levels, and finally, remember that managing ourselves and being supportive for others are more important than ever.

Stay safe in this uncertain environment, and recall that in order to get through this together, we have to stay apart.

Dr. Timothy M. Franz is an Industrial Organizational psychologist, and Professor of Psychology at St. John Fisher College. He has published extensively on teams, and is the author of Group Dynamics and Team Interventions. He works as an organizational consultant, often with Dr. Seth R. Silver, and helps organizations with teamwork, leadership, and engagement. He can be reached at 585-503-0360, or

Dr. Seth R. Silver is an Organizational Consultant, and has worked with over 150 organizations to improve leadership effectiveness, workplace culture, professional relationships, and overall performance. He was a graduate level professor at St. John Fisher College and RIT for 14 years. He can be reached at 585-330-7853, or