Leading in a Crisis: Using adaptive leadership to shape the COVID-19 crisis response

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  • Published Date: 18 April 2020

By Robbie Macpherson (Adaptable Leadership, Sydney) and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University)

The COVID-19 crisis has created extraordinary levels of disruption to our sense of security, domestic and community life, economy, public institutions, and the international system. People, firms and governments have all been caught unawares, and are still scrambling to make sense of what is happening, what is to come and how to respond.

Leaders must now begin to complement the ongoing exercising of authority in managing the health emergency with an approach that mobilises our collective will, wisdom and wits to deal with the massive economic and social impacts generated by the health emergency response measures that have been taken. In its April 2020 outlook, the IMF rightly noted that this is an epic crisis unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. The economic darkness it casts upon the world will dwarf that of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-10. The crisis will unfold in three key stages with most countries still grappling with the aftermath of the first stage, and preparing for the challenges of the second.

Stage 1: Acute disruption and emergency response

Here it was all about coping with exponential increases in infection, ‘flattening the curve’ and in some cases trying to move to ‘zero new infections’. Most countries are at the end of this stage.

Stage 2: Prolonged disruption and dilemmas of adjustment

Targeted measures to contain the pandemic are being adopted in an attempt to limit the impact of a punishing economic downturn and the social pain caused by the sustained lockdowns. ‘1.5-metre societies’ are being forged at knife’s edge, with households, businesses, markets and governments facing many tragic choices. In many countries, unemployment will shoot up into levels not seen since the Depression. Millions of hitherto ‘middle class’ workers and professionals will face prolonged economic hardship. Most countries are currently entering this stage.

Stage 3: Transitioning to a ‘new normal’

Barring rapid vaccine breakthroughs and economic miracles, this stage is probably at least a year away and will probably span several years after the pandemic has been extinguished. It will be a slow process beginning once lockdowns begin to ease.

The quality of the leadership work undertaken during Stage 2 will largely determine how resilient organisations, economies and nations will prove to be. It will set the agenda and determine the playing field upon which we transition into the final stage. Given the continuing uncertainty and the absence of any roadmap, leaders will need a strategic framework to move beyond the ‘fire-fighting’ mode that has largely consumed their energies to date. We suggest Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership model provides such a tool for discerning the challenges - and the opportunities - that the Coronavirus is throwing at us.

Exercising authority versus exercising leadership

Heifetz differentiates the work of exercising authority from the work of exercising leadership. He argues that the traditional work of authority— providing top-down direction and protection while maintaining order — is critical in the midst of a genuine crisis. People instinctively look to authority figures to provide this direction for us: heads of government, CEOs, nominated experts, anyone in a uniform.

When they do this well, collective stress is contained as authorities reassert a level of control on the situation. However, if authority figures duck, deny, distort or procrastinate in the midst of a crisis, the lack of direction, protection and order will increase the public’s anxiety and confidence in leaders and institutions will suffer. Conversely, a similar drop in trust may occur when leaders are seen to be overzealous or self-serving in appropriating and wielding their executive authority.

In Australia and New Zealand, this authority work during the acute response to a crisis is usually performed relatively effectively. And so it has been during Stage 1 of the COVID-19 crisis. National cabinets working as united fronts; political differences being suspended in the national interest; prime ministers rising to the occasion; seamless collaborations taking hold. Governments took drastic steps to protect and direct us in an orderly fashion – unprecedented lock-downs, throwing the equivalent of 16% of GNP in the economy – buying us all time to work on the ‘what to do next’ stage.

Heifetz argues that it is in the next stage of a crisis that things get much more tricky. In the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot simply breathe a collective sigh of relief and rush back to the familiarity and comfort of business as usual. And yet some of the rhetoric of our authority figures has raised those expectations. We have been told we are ‘hibernating’ large parts of our economy, evoking the image of a sleepy and hungry bear waking up, then wandering off to get busy acquiring the now plentiful food. If only it were going to be this easy and fluid.

In reality, the adaptive stage of this crisis is unlike anything Western nations have faced since the oil embargos and price hikes of 1973/4 obliterated the economic equation underpinning their thriving economies and burgeoning welfare states. Like then, we cannot and will not go back to ‘normal’. The shock and its many dire reverberations are too big, diverse and widespread to make it possible for us to simply ‘bounce back’ and ‘recover’. Families, communities, firms, governments and nations all need to come to terms with the real losses they will sustain, and then, given those losses, determine what they need to discard, what to conserve, what to embrace, what to reinforce, and what to invent.

We will have to absorb, learn and adapt. Lacking the knowledge and resources to perform the work of authority for us in addressing these adaptive challenges, political and public service leaders will now need to concentrate more of their efforts on mobilising adaptive work in us. Heifetz’s model suggests five interrelated leadership practices for doing so that we suggest should now become essential tools of leadership during Stage 2 of this deep and protracted crisis. They are:

1. Step back from the fray

Leading in a crisis is demanding, confusing and overwhelming. It is critical to find a way to step back from the intensity of the action (Heifetz likens it to a dancefloor) to get a broader perspective (get on the balcony). Strategic crisis leadership requires discernment of the big-picture dynamics and challenges unfolding. Rising above and seeing through the fog of war of emergency responses. This means leaders need to personally undertake critical reflective and diagnostic work, and ensure this work is properly informed and supported.

This is not easy. Getting on the balcony regularly at a time of crisis requires self-discipline, even courage, as well as organisational rigour.

Let’s face it, even in the absence of a crisis, many senior leaders spend too much time doing and not enough time thinking, reflecting and diagnosing. Now, at Stage 2 of the COVID-19 crisis, they should work hard to resist the temptation of staying immersed in the urgent-now space and start attending to the strategically important soon-and-after space instead. They need to prioritise the time, get away from the inbox, and delegate work they really do not need to be doing.

2. Teach reality and frame the adaptive challenges

Adaptive work requires figuring out what in the current system requires shifting in order to not just survive but thrive in the new environment. These shifts only occur if all parties in the system put their energies into tackling the realities of the situation at hand, including its tough challenges as well as the opportunities it may offer. Use this disruption to stimulate thinking and work to transform existing practice and habits.

Adaptive challenges will include:

  • New ways of organising and working: Many workers are currently working from home, often for the first time ­ a dramatic change. Once the lockdown begins to ease what will the new working arrangements need to look like? What can be gained from integrating the at-a-distance service delivery models and working arrangements that organisations have been experimenting with?
  • Globalisation 2.0: The old version of globalisation is over, but we need to resist the lurch to overt nationalism. How do we find a new balance between globalisation and the nation-state, which includes securing supply chains, producing and securing production of critical goods and services?
  • The role of government: We are seeing and accepting an unprecedented and unimaginable level of state intervention in the economy. Will we roll all of this back? Will we move to a ‘post-neoliberal’ era of big(ger) government to ensure a more resilient and socially responsible functioning of markets? Or will we transition to a new mix of state, market and community that will allow for renewed economic prosperity? These alternatives have to be considered while at the same time dealing with the crushing debts that governments and central banks will have taken on.
  • Innovation and cultural change: As with most crises, COVID-19 has generated a surge of innovative responses across many organisations and sectors. Institutional status quos have been temporarily suspended in favour of agile, open and experimental mindsets. How can we sustain the latter while preserving the valuable components of the former, and how do we manage the tensions and conflicts involved?
  • Governance and democracy: The public is beginning to like what they are seeing in the way the country is being governed right now: politicians taking the advice of impartial experts (e.g. in Health, Treasury, Foreign Affairs) while small-p political advisers and factional warriors take a backseat; cooperation between states and the Commonwealth for the public good; opposition parties supporting sound policy decisions; speedy and reliable, non-bureaucratic service delivery; innovative ways of harnessing the drive and qualities of the community sector. Is this an opportunity to offer Australians and New Zealanders an improved version of the ailing, jaded Westminster system?

3. Acknowledge emotion and loss

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this work. It is painful to lose something we hold dear, whether it be our job, part of our identity, a role or routine we are familiar with. The COVID-19 crisis generates multiple layers of losses at a scale that Western countries have not experienced since World War II. People are emotional beings and need time, support and understanding to work through those losses: to let go, grieve and transition to a new reality. Failing to acknowledge and support this is a moral and strategic leadership error. Moral because we are dealing with human beings, who deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Strategic, because it will decrease the likelihood of successful adaptation. Name the losses, encourage others to acknowledge their feelings. Ask them what they need to move on. Listen deeply to people’s concerns and fears.

4. Generate meaning and learning

Leaders need to mobilise groups of people across their organisations to think, learn and work together on tackling problems. Create working groups across boundaries to tackle the adaptive challenges you have diagnosed. Be creative and disruptive as you set up the learning processes – bring people together from across traditional boundaries and hierarchies and give them total freedom in how they engage.

Encourage diversity of thinking i.e. form multiple groups working on the same problem. Keep timeframes tight. Protect alternative and marginalised voices. Give license to innovate: resource and protect new thinking, disruption and experimentation. Use your power to frame and set the agenda, convene people, and structure work processes to ensure the system maintains its attention on the key issues. Don’t allow it to get distracted or take refuge in wishful thinking, but also regulate the pace and the heat of your agenda-setting to ensure that people are not entirely overwhelmed.

5. Pace the work and support the effort

The practical and psychological demands of this crisis must not be under-estimated. Public servants risk exhaustion, burn-out and being overwhelmed by the multiple professional and personal demands placed on them for an extended period. They will need practical support, encouragement, compassion and motivation to help people through the process. Leaders must stay visible, reach out, listen and enquire. They must share the load, celebrate effort and success, be honest, consistent and authentic with people, and show strength and vulnerability. To achieve any of this involves requires leading themselves well: maintaining a healthy balance between taking up their leadership roles and looking after their own wellbeing by creating a strong support network around them.

None of this is going to be easy – quite the opposite. Adaptive leadership is about purposefully navigating the disequilibrium triggered by the crisis. As Heifetz and his colleagues observe, it is deeply political in its implications. It is about depersonalising the conflicts which naturally arises as people experiment and shift course in an environment of uncertainty and turbulence. Each of the adaptive challenges we identified as coming to the fore in Stage 2 of the COVID-19, will generate such conflicts. If we want our organisations, our communities, our governments to navigate this crisis productively, these are conflicts we have to have. And we need adaptive leadership to ensure we do.

Sign up to leading in a crisis


This article is part of ANZSOG’s Leading in a crisis  series which features the best research and thinking on crisis leadership as part of ANZSOG’s mission to lift the quality of government in Australia and New Zealand.

Public managers are dealing with a fast-changing global crisis and being forced to make difficult choices based on limited information.

The series explores crisis management, leadership and communications, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will put global expertise in the hands of public managers in Australia and New Zealand.

Previous articles have explored strategic crisis leadership, building a high performing team and organisational resilience in mega-crises.

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Leading in a crisis series webpage.


Further reading

Heifetz, R. (1994) Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. and Linsky, M. (2009) ‘Leadership in a (permanent) crisis’. Harvard Business Review, July/August, https://hbr.org/2009/07/leadership-in-a-permanent-crisis

International Monetary Fund (2020), World Economic Outlook, April 2020: The Great Lockdown. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/World-Economic-Outlook-April-2020-The-Great-Lockdown-49306

Williams, D. (2015) Leadership for a Fractured World. New York: Berrett-Koehler.


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