March 23, 2020

COVID-19 and the challenge of leadership in crisis management

François Audet, Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal; Caroline Coulombe, Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal; David Morin, Professor, University of Sherbrooke; Marie-Claude Savard, PhD candidate, Université du Québec à Montréal. The authors are members of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crises and Aid (OCCAH) and its Risk and Security Management Program.


Montreal, March 21, 2020

In Quebec, the “good” leadership of Prime Minister Legault and his team is increasingly pitted against that of the Trudeau administration, which has received significant criticism in the province, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve. While this opposition doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation, the issue of leadership remains essential in times of emergency, and not simply for the state and its various levels. Leadership also affects organizations, which must devise strategies and make important decisions in the context of crises.

But what is “good” leadership in times of crisis? What makes us feel safe and supported? What provides us with a sense that a situation is under control? Academic literature suggests that the following elements play a key role:

  • the speed with which contact is established with the population experiencing the crisis, whether they be employees, customers, suppliers or, as in this case, citizens and organizations that are directly impacted;
  • the sincerity of communication efforts (through the media or internally, within an organization) and the calm that is exhibited by leaders, which fosters a perception that the situation is under control;
  • the frequency of communication, which makes it possible, in real time, to inform or mobilize the public along the different stages of an emergency protocol;
  • the credibility of information, which must be evidence-based and as transparent as possible concerning the strategic and organizational issues that informed, educated and capable citizens will be faced with;
  • the consistency of decisions and messages that are transmitted orally and in writing;
  • an ability to explain changes and the evolution of the situation, and possibly, the capacity to apologize should it be necessary;
  • consistency in the level of authority and the tone of communication with the public (employees, citizens, managers, customers, etc.).

These factors may explain why some organizations in Quebec are performing better than others in this time of crisis. It must be noted that leadership in emergency situations isn’t inherently possessed, but rather learned and practised. While a crisis may provide an opportunity for some leaders to gain firsthand experience, it’s preferable to acquire the necessary skills and experience in a preventative fashion, in advance of an emergency. Leaders who have only managed minor crises, or who lack the required skills, may find it difficult to engage in clear, firm and transparent communication with their various stakeholders. When organizations experience difficulty in absorbing changes during crises, inconsistencies emerge between emergency guidelines and their application. This leads to further confusion, frustration and even a sense of chaos among employees.

In times of crisis, it’s necessary to adjust the lines of command: leaders must listen to their team and advisors, but consensus may not be achievable given the time constraints. Doubt must not appear in the process. Decisions must be made quickly and held firmly. In the event of a mistake, strategies must be adjusted, with humility, and always with firmness. Meanwhile, leaders must mobilize stakeholders, and garner support from the majority of their personnel and the wider public in matters that concern them.

Acting to the best of its knowledge and the emerging data, the Quebec government appears to be exercising a type of leadership that is adaptive and responsive. Opposition parties’ support is further contributing to the public’s perception of coherence and cohesion. We must salute this achievement and hope that it continues. While in the short-term, some organizations may not be as essential as the Quebec government or the health system in addressing this crisis, we must remember that we all have a role to play. Together we must ride a wave degrowth to overcome a challenge much greater than that of corporate profit or the next quarters’ performance.

Currently, our role, whether individual, organizational or collective, is to support the government’s decisions in an effort to reduce the virus’s exponential growth. Within an organization, this means interrogating the necessity for managers to be on-site. Can the number of employees on the floor be reduced? Can schedules be adjusted? Are some categories of staff more vulnerable than others in times of crisis? As leaders, how can we better communicate our strategies and decisions? Failing to implement drastic adjustments intended to curb the spread of the virus will likely lead to greater losses for organizations in the midterm.

The global pandemic situation requires that all organization leaders be responsible and accountable for the essential and often difficult decisions that must be made. Should they act now, and with diligence, we will all be able to claim a part in the successful management of this historic crisis in Quebec.

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