Are proven leadership practices still effective in a crisis?

female talking to a team of people

To say that the global population is currently going through a time of significant uncertainty is to hugely understate the current state of play. One interesting point to consider in the face of this is whether the
practices of leaders of yesteryear are as effective in influencing behaviour today as in crises past or whether an entirely new set of leadership practices is required.

With the clear objective of stopping the spread of COVID-19, leaders across the globe continue to make recommendations and demands focussed on reducing social interaction. Whilst the mode, style and emphasis of the messages vary with environment, geographical location, population density, political persuasion and societal norms, the messaging itself is fairly consistent. The question of the influence of leaders in delivering these messages in an environment of fear, uncertainty, and restriction is, however, a much deeper one, and one worth exploring through the lens of four key leadership pillars.

Setting clear goal posts

Let's begin by looking at the first of four practices of leadership which, in a business-as-usual environment, positively align with human motivation: the goal posts are clear.

How does a leader begin to provide clarity in a time of such uncertainty? If we can’t predict the outcome, how can we paint a clear vision of the future? Does providing such a picture still work in such unpredictable times?

The answer is: absolutely.

Whilst we may not be 100% sure of the outcome of our actions in the beginning, what we can do is initiate small but impactful steps towards our goal. Leaders now more than ever require the ability to simplify the complex, move quickly based on new data presented, and lead with certainty through uncertainty.

The current pandemic has required leaders to adjust actions based on moving data and provide the right messages in a way which motivates people to act, and at the intervals required for continuous improvement. We can also easily identify leadership which is not aligned with human motivation.

The example set by antipodean leaders in this sphere through the pandemic is strong, with (barring a few missteps along the way) frequent and consistent messaging about what the people of Australia and New Zealand need to do, why they need to do it and what outcomes the actions will deliver.’s the reason we were very deliberate and really clear with New Zealanders that it would be 4 weeks when we went into Level 4, just to give everyone that level of certainty.

- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Monday, 6 April

In contrast, messaging from the White House about what the American people need to do has varied, from

I started by saying that, and I continue to say it. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. We've got to get our country open.

President Donald Trump, Sunday, 5 April

I disagree with him on what he’s doing.

President Donald Trump on Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to relax COVID-19 restrictions in Georgia, 23 Thursday, April

Encouraging the use of skill & initiative

How have we faired so far with the second leadership practice: encouraging the use of skill and initiative?

We respond very positively when given the opportunity to bring our skills and knowledge to the problem at hand, and particularly when it contributes in a way that is important, impactful, meaningful, and can be measured.

The clearest example in the current environment is the healthcare sector. Despite the sacrifices required and the potential implications for personal health and safety, health professionals globally continue to work tirelessly to help others, overcoming a myriad of logistical obstacles as well as coping with the serious physical and emotional toll in doing so.

Other sectors have responded to government calls for assistance in supplying vital products and services in short supply, with businesses having volunteered their expertise, skills, and time to contribute to long-term solutions for both local markets and the world at large. Such is the motivation behind the ability to use our skill and initiative in a meaningful way.

Our restauranteurs, whose businesses have been severely impacted by the restrictions associated with social distancing, have responded by adjusting their model to support the community through zero contact food delivery, along with wonderful initiatives and activities to support the most vulnerable in our community.

Chef Adam Liston and his Shobosho crew have teamed up with CBD community centre WestCare to cook lunch for around 150 homeless and disadvantaged people six days a week…… We’re able to jump in and create something using our skills.

Mr Liston, The Advertiser, Wednesday, 1 April

Measuring performance regularly

What part has the third leadership practice, measuring performance regularly, played in providing human motivation?

Whether it be moving away from pain or moving towards pleasure, the motivation provided through measurement of our progress is well supported and proven in all walks of life.

In an environment like today’s, when our minds are constantly managing new information at greater speed than we can absorb, simple measurements which clearly align with our goal and can be depicted in visuals suited to multiple formats are the most likely to influence behaviour.

A simple but powerful example of this is the ‘flatten the curve’ message which all of us have heard over the past few weeks. While the verbal delivery of the ‘flatten the curve’ message may not have immediately resonated with the wider population, the introduction of visuals enabled us to align with the goal and follow progress. The goal posts became clearer, and we could begin to connect the actions asked of us with the intended outcome.

Without some way of connecting us to a measurement, we have little way of matching the effort with the outcome, and we are more likely to reduce our commitment to the activity required, particularly if it is causing us perceived or real pain. The decision by leaders across the world to adapt their messaging to include measurement has had a tremendous impact on our understanding, engagement, and commitment to the short-term adjustments of behaviour for long-term gain.

[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo listed seven requirements [that] must be met before restrictions meant to slow the virus’s spread could be eased…:

  • A 14-day decline in hospitalizations, or fewer than 15 a day.
  • A 14-day decline in virus-related hospital deaths, or fewer than five a day.
  • A steady rate of new hospitalizations below 2 per 100,000 residents a day.
  • A hospital-bed vacancy rate of at least 30 percent.
  • An availability rate for intensive care unit beds of at least 30 percent.
  • At least 30 virus tests per 1,000 residents conducted a month.
  • At least 30 working contact tracers per 100,000 residents.

New York Times, Monday,4 May

Recognising improvements

The last of our four leadership examples is difficult in our current pandemic, however recognising improvements, even if small, and acknowledging these is critical in influencing behaviour. When we are asking more of others, even in these extreme circumstances, recognition of those who contributed to the achievement builds feelings of self-esteem and supports sustained change in behaviour.

Whilst cautious to make any predictions around the long-term impact of our current health crisis, our nation’s leaders have integrated recognition of the achievements in relation to reduced infections and reinforced the effectiveness of every citizen’s contribution in achieving this decline.

Australians have earned an early mark through the work that they've done… today the national cabinet agreed to bring forward our consideration of relaxing restrictions.

- Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Friday, 1 May

If we are presented with actions to take which will lead us to the goal, we use our skills and initiative to move us towards a solution, and the chosen measures which reflect improvement, then we must recognise the effort to embed the new behaviours.

During times of great uncertainty, there must be hope. Leaders play a key part in providing this hope through consistent practices which align with human motivation. As our fear increases, so does our need to strengthen our bond with others, our sense of direction, our self-worth, and our security.

Whilst nothing can be guaranteed in a pandemic, our leadership practices will move people closer or further away from the very behaviours essential to reducing the fear and achieving our goals.

By Lorraine Caruso, Adelaide Business School, The University of Adelaide

Lorraine Caruso is a part of the Adelaide Business School and is a facilitator of Executive Education programs at The University of Adelaide as well as an alumna of the Adelaide MBA. She has extensive experience in business coaching, mentoring, and strategic and operational consulting and has held regional, state, national, general management, CEO, and director roles throughout her 30 year career. Lorraine will be delivering a number of intensive courses as part of The University of Adelaide Short Courses.

As part of the Thought Leadership series we are offering a free webinar - 
Practicing self-care during times of crisis, Thursday 4 June 2020; 12.00pm (ACST)

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