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Leading in a Crisis: How to Navigate the COVID-19 Minefield

The current global pandemic has upended the operations of government organizations around the world. Here are five recommendations for leaders confronting the “once in a lifetime” coronavirus crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become the ultimate stress test for communities, countries and the world. It falls into the "once in a lifetime" category, but the dynamics and challenges it will entail have been studied for years by researchers investigating “super wicked problems,” ”transboundary crises” and “mega crises.”

Time is at a premium. Political and public service leaders must deliver their ultimate performance in the face of exceptional threats, gaps and flaws in the available data, and high levels of uncertainty about how any interventions will play out. They must do so in the full light of media, and under the forensic scrutiny of experts, business owners and worried citizens. The costs of failure are high for all concerned. Offering steadfast strategic leadership under these circumstances appears to be a daunting prospect.

But it is not impossible. Based on extensive research over decades, we identify key current and future leadership challenges, while offering recommendations for leaders seeking to navigate a minefield of issues.

Challenge 1: Detecting incoming issues in a fast-changing situation

The speed and scale of the COVID-19 threat have surprised most, if not all, governments. By the time it became an "official" crisis, the virus and its impact were already cascading across national borders and economic sectors from health to tourism and hospitality. It is very difficult to call a crisis when the public, experts and politicians are mentally not ready to accept the emerging threat as one. The COVID-19 crisis will give rise to new crises, some of which will be hard to imagine now but will seem conventional wisdom next week.

Accept that you are now in new territory, where the normal rules of problem emergence and problem definition are not valid. Leaders will have to grasp the evolving nature of the crisis in a timely manner to stay ahead of the curve while avoiding suggestions that they seek to exploit or manufacture it. Timing and framing are everything.

Challenge 2: Making sense of a dynamic threat with limited information

It has proven frustratingly hard to understand the speed, scope and consequences of COVID-19. There are many variables and not enough information. Experts disagree on escalation rates and the impact of proposed measures. Seemingly dramatic predictions are based on modeling efforts that make use of disputed input variables. As a result, leaders are navigating in semi-darkness.

Accept, as the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte put it, that "with 50 percent being uncertain you still have to make 100 percent of the decisions." There are major limits to what you can know in the here and now, which makes it important to ensure you have whatever is available.

Gather as much feedback as possible from statistics on testing and hospital bed capacities, to issues of societal resilience and the extent of compliance with new laws, regulations and guidelines. But realize that the data may prompt new questions. Be aware of what happens in other countries but recognize that threat trajectories and success measures do not automatically translate into valid prescriptions for different environments. Deep uncertainty is the essence of the crisis. Accept major limitations to your information flow rather than waiting for better conditions for decision-making to emerge.

Challenge 3: Making life-or-death decisions

The COVID-19 crisis brings all the dilemmas that crisis experts fear most: choosing between who will live and die; weighing how much economic damage we will take to save the lives for a select category of fellow citizens; balancing unpopular measures against the necessity of legitimacy. These are defining choices that determine how history is written. They can also be lonely moments for leaders.

Avoid the temptation of heroic leadership – the historic model of the ultimate decision that demands the ultimate sacrifice. Stick with the limited hard data that you have, but realize that experts will not take all values into consideration. Making value judgments and weighing the balance of interests are what prudent political leadership is about. In charting a course, take a pragmatic approach by trying to avoid irreversible decisions as long as you can, and create mental and political space for adjusting and reversing decisions that turn out to be counterproductive or wrong.

Challenge 4: The art of strategic coordination

In a global crisis like COVID-19, many organizations – public, private and societal – will need to do their part. They must work together, as the integrity and effectiveness of the overall response is highly dependent on them joining up their individual responses. They are usually willing to do just that, but they may need guidance. The same is true for citizens, many of whom are keen to volunteer. There is much societal resilience on offer, but it needs to be given a license to operate through explicit facilitation, public encouragement and regulatory flexibility.

Think about this crisis and the responses to it across sectors, across levels, across boundaries. In a crisis such as COVID-19, formal competencies and institutionalized boundaries can be navigated with surprising ease, as long as the skills of people and organizations are recognized and respected. Leaders need to reach out and bring everybody on board. That is the art of strategic coordination. Office-driven or agency-centric command and control are overrated.

Challenge 5: Keep worried publics and wary workers on side

Crisis communication “best practice” is remarkably simple and consistent. It emphasizes the need for clear, timely, consistent and repeated messaging and actionable advice, delivered by credible sources. Yet it remains surprising how often crisis communication turns out to be an Achilles heel of crisis response. Government communications may be "behind the curve" or offer ambiguous messages that seek to balance competing priorities. Leaders often fail to convince and can be disconnected from people’s experiences. They may also be overly cautious in avoiding panic among citizens and therefore refuse to communicate the whole truth. Fifty years of crisis research has shown this almost never happens as most citizens can handle ominous information when given clear guidance on how to act.

If you get it wrong, rumors and intensifying criticism will soon let you know. Do not let it get to that point. Fill the hunger for information and the need for guidance, informed not just by expert knowledge and incoming data but also by grasping the public’s evolving mood and spirit. All messaging has to have a clear and convincing bottom line. If the elderly are vulnerable, the message and measures should be aimed at protecting the elderly. If ICU beds are in short supply, leaders should explain where they will come from or who will get to use them. Treat citizens (and staff) like adults.

Arjen Boin is Professor of Public Institutions and Governance, Department of Political Science, Leiden University.

Allan McConnell is Professor of Public Policy, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

Paul 't Hart is a professor of public administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance and the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB) in The Hague.

This story has been republished with permission from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Read the complete series here.