Responsible Leadership in Times of Crisis

Mar 19, 2020 12 Min Read
responsible leadership
In dire times, responsible leadership, or lack thereof, can make all the difference.

So, our world is in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, of the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that the label ‘pandemic’ should galvanise the world to fight. However, he also noted that “describing the situation as a pandemic does not change …what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do”.

While there are calls for what countries should do, what can, or must, individuals and collectives do to practice leadership in times of crisis?

If, as Peter Drucker, a management guru, argued, leadership is not rank, privilege, title, or money, but responsibility, then, how can we as individuals and as a collective act responsibly in times of this crisis? In asking my question in this way, I do want to affirm that solutions to responsible leadership do not reside in executing boardrooms and neither do they rest in the hands of politicians (elected or otherwise). They reside instead in the collective intelligence of all human beings no matter what their ‘position’ might be.

Part of our responsibility is to act on our collective intelligence.

So, what’s the problem? Allow me to turn to Ronald Heifetz, a musician, psychiatrist, and leadership scholar, who defined two types of problems, technical and adaptive, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. Briefly, this is how he defined them.


In the face of technical problems, many have the know-how, the design, the cultural assumptions, and expertise to deal with it. While technical problems, like a power outage, can cause a very high level of disturbance, these disturbances do trigger appropriate responses and solutions. The technical experts can quickly step into action and resolve the problem.


With adaptive problems, like the coronavirus, there are no quick and simple solutions. In addition to being a medical challenge, there are also higher levels of uncertainty and unknowns. The responses to this virus needs to occur at multiple levels, including health care, politics, and culturally.

The last presents its own set of challenges in that there is also the challenge of identifying and taking responsibility for one’s own habits, including the types of food that is eaten, and a willingness to change entrenched cultural assumptions, hygiene, and behaviour over time. Purely adaptive problems are most difficult to resolve. It requires people to not simply change but to fundamentally transform their priorities, beliefs, and loyalties.

‘Progress’ of any kind requires people to go beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilise discovery and shed certain entrenched ways for the sake of beginning anew.

COVID-19: A technical and adaptive problem

To define COVID-19 as an adaptive problem implies that it is insufficient to throw technical solutions to solve the problem. There are no quick and simple solutions. Putting on face masks and emptying the stores of face masks, for example, are technical solutions. Social distancing and avoiding being in large gatherings are yet another technical solution to this ever threatening virus. But these technical solutions are not enough to combat this virus. So, if technical solutions are not enough, then what more must we do in the name of responsibility?

5 principles of responsible leadership

Allow me to offer five principles to act responsibly in this time of crisis. The first four of these belong to Professor Heifetz and the fifth to Peter Senge, a professor and consultant in organisational learning.

A principle is more than what we call ‘values’. In farming for example, farmers know that they need to plant their seeds in the spring and harvest in the fall. Violate this natural principle by reversing the order of planting and harvesting, and the harvest is lost.

Unlike values, principles cut across cultures in that it applies to all. It does not matter if we are Malaysians, Canadians, Americans, Italians, Chinese, or nationals of any other country. One thing is clear, if we violate any of the principles identified below while in the middle of our pandemic, we will all lose.

I would also suggest that attending to these principles will enable us all “to get our act together”, as a Malaysian doctor, Dr. Amir Singh, recently noted.

Principle #1: Go to the balcony

The Italians may have a point. While 60 million in Italy are quarantined, some are going to their balconies not to jump off, but to sing in order to lift the spirits of others. I would also suggest that in going to the balcony, their singing can be viewed as lifting us up and away from all the ‘noise’ and ‘chaos’ that can distract us from seeing and dealing with the problem at hand.

A woman sings from her balcony amidst movement restriction measures in Rome, Italy (Reuters/Alberto Lingria)

They can be seen as advising us that we need to give ourselves an opportunity to take a deep breath and think about our thinking and about what we are doing in responding to this virus. Not being sucked into all the ‘noise’ and ‘chaos’, going to the balcony offers us the space we need to, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta noted, draw the line between panic and caution.

Panic, fear and wildly unthinking behaviours

The Oxford Dictionary defines panic as “a sudden feeling of great fear that cannot be controlled and prevents you from thinking clearly”. Lexico, a UK dictionary, suggest that this fear leads to “wildly unthinking behaviour”.

Would emptying store shelves of toilet paper be an example of this wildly unthinking behaviour? Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and author of the Psychology of Pandemics, argues, that it is not responsible thinking but fear that is driving this clear-the-shelves-toilet-paper-behaviour syndrome.

It is akin to how stampedes happen in stadiums. Taylor argues that in times of crisis, if you see someone acting in a frightened way in shopping malls by stocking up, that behaviour translates into a fear contagion. The fear reaction is predictable in that it causes other people to over-purchase. Our wildly unthinking behaviour moves us to behave like monkeys: “monkey see, monkey do”. In Canada, it is sad to see some behaving as monkeys do.

But not all are fearful…

Some have become parasitically calculative. In Australia, for example, one man was caught trying to flog packets of toilet paper for AUD2,000 after listing them on Gumtree and demanding desperate customers pay cash only. Like a parasite, this man chose to live off the fear of the virus pandemic. Another Australian woman took ‘stockpiling’ to new heights by (accidentally) purchasing a 12-year supply of toilet paper and proclaimed herself as a ‘toilet paper queen’ in the process. (The family now plans on selling their leftovers in a fundraiser for the same price they originally purchased them. The proceeds will go to their daughter’s school).

Caution and responsibility

Focusing on caution, on the other hand, moves us to act differently. Again, the Oxford Dictionary defines cautious as “being careful about what you say or do, especially to avoid danger or mistakes; not taking any risks”. So, yes, the advice of ‘washing your hands’, is one way of not only being careful but also of what it means to act responsibly.

What about visiting the elderly or gathering in large numbers on the streets or in places of worship (social distancing)? At the risk of spreading these unwanted germs, perhaps it is better to err on the side of caution, and either limit these activities (visiting the elderly; mass gatherings) or not visit or gather in large numbers for a little while.

That is a responsible thing to do.

The responsible thing to do is to pay attention to what I am personally doing because that would potentially affect you. Ironically, individual practices like self-quarantine, or social distancing are practiced for the sake of a healthy community. Caution offers us to think about and act on what is good for the community.

Principle #2: Regulate distress

Higher deaths, uncertainty, and dealing with an unknown, is generating a high level of distress. How then can we regulate distress responsibly?

First, we can de-escalate stress by asking the right questions and addressing what others want to know honestly. Right information is critical. And here, we need to be cautious about what we read in social media because it is filled with truths, half-truths, and sometimes plain falsehoods. For example, in reaction to rumours that went viral through Facebook, officials in France found it necessary to put out a public statement that snorting cocaine will not cure coronavirus.

Second, the greatest disservice any one person, including politicians, can do at times like this is to lie, deceive, minimise the threat, or confuse with conflicting statements. One person, in the highest level of government, President Trump, is using the COVID-19 outbreak to justify his push for a wall along the US-Mexico border – as if this disease originated in Mexico.

These reactions will always fail the ‘Pinocchio Test’ – and these leaders will continue to suffer from the lack of credibility.

[Editor’s note: In fact, many global leaders have been accused of spreading misinformation, downplaying the situation, politicising the issue or neglecting to communicate with clarity. Many leaders, in crisis, try to offer immediate solutions that have little to no value. Leadership, especially in crisis, requires the highest level of integrity and self-sacrifice.]

Principle #3: Maintain self-discipline

What would an irresponsible maintenance of self-discipline look like? We notice that some individuals in the highest levels of government are preoccupied with blaming other nations for this crisis.

For example, the Chinese military’s online portal recently published an article claiming the virus is a “biochemical weapon produced by the U.S, to target China”. Information like this, prompted U.S. Department of Defense press secretary Alyssa Farah to say: “As a global crisis, COVID-19 [should] be an area of cooperation between nations. Instead, the Communist Party of China has chosen to promulgate false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members. #ChinaPropaganda”.

This is not the time to cast blame – and there is enough of that to go around. This is a time for all to maintain self-discipline and responsibly do the tough work that is needed to get this pandemic under control, contained, and eventually eliminated. This is not the time to distract ourselves with the rhetoric and slogans of blaming. Blaming shifts the burden of responsibility to others. Blaming creates an ‘us vs them’ world, and in blaming ‘them,’ the ‘us’ avoids taking responsibility.

Principle #4: Protect the voices from below

Responsible leadership pays attention and protects voices like Dr. Li who warned his colleagues of the impending danger of the virus. On December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang wrote to 150 of his friends from medical circles about a number of cases of viral pneumonia coming into the Wuhan Central Hospital. They all seemed linked to the Huanan Seafood Market, the main source of seafood for restaurants in Wuhan.

After Dr. Li wrote his letter he was forced to sign a document designed to coerce him into silence. Five weeks later, Li was killed by the same virus he warned his friends about. He died in the same hospital that had warned him not to tell people about what was happening. In the hours before his death, Joyce Nip from Sydney University wrote:

…millions of Chinese citizens prayed for a miracle. Two hashtags about his death drew 670 and 230 million reads respectively on the popular social media platform Weibo by 6am on 7 February. As demand for freedom of speech circulates on the internet in China, Li is widely mourned as a hero.

Dr. Li Wenliang sounded the alarm on the novel coronavirus that would be known as COVID-19. He is widely mourned as a hero. (Photo: Weibo)

To protect, listen, and heed the voices like Dr. Li’s, means a willingness by ruling authorities to relinquish control. It fundamentally challenges the assumptions, values, and beliefs of political regimes that is based on ‘control’.

In autocracies, the problem is exacerbated in that those who deviate from the voices of the established order are silenced. In autocracies, only one voice matters. Any deviation from this one voice is viewed as a mark of disloyalty and sometimes treason. Authoritarian and tyrannical regimes would prefer their citizens to not think for themselves. Their preference is for their citizens to simply do as they are told.

Principle #5: Be truly proactive

Without a doubt, all that is being done today is a reaction to this new disease. Some might even argue that we have not been ‘proactive’ in that we have not done enough to prevent this disease from getting out of control.

In this sense, being ‘proactive’ is seen as an antidote to being ‘reactive’. But here’s the rub. Peter Senge, who wrote The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations, elaborated on the difference between being proactive and being truly proactive. All too often, he claimed, in our busyness in fighting the virus (problem) ‘out there’, proactiveness is reactiveness in disguise. He claimed that the typical behaviour of facing up to difficult issues, not waiting for someone else to do something, and solve problems before they grow into a crisis, is really reactiveness disguised as proactiveness.

What then does it mean to be truly proactive? For Senge, “true proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems”. It is not an emotional state but a product of our thinking. Being truly proactive gets to the heart of the matter. In a true spirit of responsibility, true proactiveness raises and confronts the question: What are we doing that may be causing, contributing, and spreading the virus?

Here, we all need to deeply confront and own our own thinking, behaviours (eating habits and food?), entrenched cultural assumptions, and values. This can be the hardest and riskiest thing to do but it must be done.

Those who choose to confront these behaviours, assumptions, and values publicly, run the risk of being accused as racists, or they may be silenced (like Dr. Li) or they may, at worst, be assassinated. At the same time, if we continue to think in the same way, and do the same things, we will continue to have the same results. To think otherwise, namely do the same things and expect different results, would be the mark of insanity.

So, what’s our choice?

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Malaysian-born Dr Stan is currently an Associate Professor, at Baker College, Centre for Graduate Studies, in Flint, Michigan. As a scholar-practitioner in the discipline of leadership studies, he brings over 25 years of experience both in the public sector and in higher education.

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