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Five things we learned about crisis leadership during COVID-19

15 December 2020

News and media


Person protecting dominoes from falling

Most public sector leaders had experienced nothing like the COVID-19 pandemic before 2020. The fast-changing crisis demanded quick and tough decisions from all sectors, with limited information and without any international consensus on what the best course of action might be, both to quell the virus itself and also the economic and social costs of each strategy.

It’s not a surprise that crisis leadership was a popular topic for ANZSOG’s audience in 2020, as theories about how to respond were put into practice, and public sector resilience was stress-tested.

In response to the pandemic, ANZSOG moved a range of education, research and advice and thought leadership deliveries online, and developed new initiatives that prioritised the need to provide public sector leaders with the best knowledge and research to deal with COVID-19. These included:

The Leading in a Crisis series
The Reimagining Government series
Our research translation series, The Bridge.

The following articles on crisis leadership were some of the most popular articles on the ANZSOG website in 2020. They explore COVID-specific examples but their lessons can be applied more broadly and throughout the recovery phase. Each article uses ANZSOG’s unique network of academics and practitioners, who were able to help us communicate the latest thinking about crisis leadership to the public sector throughout 2020.

Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response has been a masterclass in crisis leadership

By Suze Wilson (Massey University)

Aotearoa-New Zealand’s early success in eliminating COVID-19 is an exceptional case. Suze Wilson writes that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s mastery of crisis leadership – and leadership in general – was a crucial factor, and something other western leaders could learn from.

Wilson argues that, especially in the case of COVID-19, crisis aversion relies on winning the support of millions of people. Since crises demand tough decisions and impositions (e.g. Level 4 Lockdown), enforcement alone cannot bring success. Leaders need to convince people to choose to follow their leadership.

Wilson demonstrates that Ardern was exemplary in her crisis communication, demonstrating the three crucial points of “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy”. Ardern paid particular attention to the latter two, often under-used elements where most leaders lend too much weight to “direction-giving”. Wilson also describes how Ardern allowed New Zealanders to cope with difficult changes and created a sense of “collective good”. By contrast, other leaders focused on enforcement without transparency.

This article was republished from The Conversation.

Read more here

Pandemic leadership: lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19

By Maria Katsonis (Melbourne University)

This is another exploration of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. This explainer clarifies how and why New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19 was so successful. Leadership plays a large part in success or failure – by the time of this article, evidence already showed that certain acts or omissions by leaders had contributed to the spread of the virus.

Accepting that leadership matters, this article summarises New Zealand’s approach, particularly its four level Alert System. It then describes a pandemic leadership framework, using New Zealand examples that can be applied anywhere, with practices to: foster a shared purpose, be led by expertise, mobilise collective effort and enable coping.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s research translation project, The Bridge.

Read more here

Leading in a crisis: strategic crisis leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Arjen Boin (Leiden University), Allan McConnell (University of Sydney), and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University/ANZSOG)

While the COVID-19 pandemic falls into the “once in a lifetime” category, its dynamics and challenges have been studied for years under headings of ‘super wicked problems’, ‘transboundary crises’ and ‘mega crises’. ANZSOG published this article early in the COVID-19 crisis in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, but the lessons within can be applied to crisis management more broadly.

The paper describes five key challenges in the COVID-19 context, and offers recommendations on how to manage each challenge. The authors outline how to detect incoming issues in a fast-changing situation; make sense of a dynamic threat with limited information; make life-or-death decisions; coordinate public, private and societal roles strategically; and keep a concerned public and workforce onside.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

Leading in a crisis: using Adaptive Leadership to shape COVID-19 crisis response

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

COVID-19 has been extraordinarily disruptive, not just to public health but to the economy and to society more broadly. Part of the difficulty was that people, firms and governments had to work out how to act before fully making sense of the problem. Robbie Macpherson and Professor Paul ‘t Hart outline three key stages to the crisis, and describe how leaders need to adapt and change to each new stage. The authors recommend Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership model, which looks at how leaders give directions and maintain order while also buying time to prepare for the next stages. The model stresses that there is no return to ‘normal’, and that adaptive leadership does not create temporary operating circumstances. Since the ramifications of the crisis are too big to ‘bounce back’ from, leaders instead need to accept the losses and work out what to discard, what to conserve, what to embrace, what to reinforce, and what to invent.

This article particularly focuses on the second stage of crisis, here named ‘Prolonged disruption and dilemmas of adjustment’. Macpherson and ‘t Hart believe that Heifetz’s model of five interrelated leadership practices are essential tools in the COVID-19 context. They outline each of these practices and the challenges they address. They argue that such a crisis must and should create political conflict, and that adaptive leadership ensures that this happens properly.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

Leading in a crisis: how to avoid common pitfalls and build a high performing teamLeading in a crisis: how to avoid common pitfalls and build a high performing team

By Eric Stern (State University of New York at Albany), Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University/ANZSOG) and Allan McConnell (University of Sydney)

Emergency response requires teams – lots of types of teams – and many emergency plans outline how to organise all people involved. These templates give a good outline for policymaking, coordination and tactical response, but they do not give guidance on how to manage the inherent interpersonal and inter-professional processes that come with teamwork. Yet team management can spell the success or failure of emergency response.

This article outlines four classic challenges to team management, especially in a crisis context. They are:

overbearing leadership
blind spots and biases
and tunnel vision and mental fatigue.

The authors describe each challenge before recommending measures to avoid or solve problems all of which can be applied broadly beyond the COVID-19 context.

This article was featured in ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series.

Read more here

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Read more #BestofANZSOG2020 articles:

Five public administration lessons from 2020
Three things we learned about working from home in 2020
Five things we learned in 2020 about mega-crises, wicked problems, and the VUCA world
Six things COVID-19 taught us about regulation and why people comply
Four lessons from 2020 policy makers need to learn
Five thought-provoking articles from 2020 for public sector leaders