• 07 May 2020
  • SBS-ED
  • 8Min

How leadership and management can respond to crisis

How leadership and management can respond to crisis

Global leaders are often faced with difficult decisions and near-impossible problems. But, until recently, few – if any – have had to face the dilemmas and extreme repercussions that come with overcoming a worldwide pandemic. Outdated leadership strategies or slow execution of crisis plans from officials could now have fatal consequences. 

There are some leaders who have taken calculated risks and made extraordinary decisions, proving they are up to the task of doing everything they can to keep their constituents safe and healthy. We analyse five world leaders that are working successfully to flatten the curve and showcase how their tactics can be incorporated into your crisis strategies. 

5 leadership and management lessons from world leaders during the COVID-19 crisis:

1. Angela Merkel (Germany) – Be brutally honest

With over 100 000 cases reported, Germany is currently ranked fifth in the region for infections. However, the mortality rate from the virus is incredibly low at just 1.6%. There are many theories on why the Germans appear to be defeating the pandemic, especially without an enforced lockdown in place. Merkel’s scientific understanding and approach have been highlighted and praised.

Additionally, she exudes the qualities of being a good leader by being brutally honest at national briefings. Her composure and honesty have earned her ongoing respect. An experienced research scientist herself, she was very frank about the possible repercussions of taking a casual approach to a viral outbreak. 

When she cautioned Germans that as many as 70% would be infected, it sent a clear message of how dangerous COVID-19 is. “The situation is serious. Take it seriously,” she warned at one of her first media briefings to her nation.

By sharing the broader picture with honesty, leaders are allowing people to participate in a solution. If everyone has a clear idea of what is at stake by not following suit, the possibility of disagreement is limited. Although flowery language might minimise panic, it can reduce the severity of a situation. Following up a status with actions to be taken is a more productive way to keep mass-hysteria at bay.

2. Moon Jae-In (South Korea) – Learn from experience

South Korea confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on the same day as the United States. While the US dismissed the seriousness of the virus, Jae-In was able to draw on a recent public health emergency to create a thorough plan of action. The varying approaches of each leader have given their respective countries dramatically different results and revealed the characteristics of a good leader. 

Unlike Italy, China and the UK, Jae-In did not call for a lockdown of the country. Having suffered a small outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015, the country and its citizens had experience in dealing with a fast-traveling airborne virus. Placing extreme importance on aggressive and widespread testing, it was easier to contain the spread and treat the infected before it became too severe. 

At present, one out of every 145 people have been tested already – which amounts to a staggering 350 000 tests done. And the results are startling. Of the almost 11, 000 confirmed cases, 8 300 have recovered and 238 have died.

By having well-established strategies in place, South Korea is now being studied as an example of a successful pandemic response. Foreign Minister Kang reinforced this idea at a World Economic Forum discussion, “You need to plan, and you need to stay one step ahead.”

Every crisis is an opportunity to learn. And not every crisis needs a new plan. This is why it’s important to have a debrief after any emergency plans have been implemented. By keeping a record of what strategies you have used in the past (with positive or negative outcomes), you are already one step ahead when determining where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

As a leader, it will be to your benefit to draw on the experiences of your team from their previous employment too. Adopt a no-judgement approach to any ideas submitted to encourage your team to feel free to share their solutions. 

3. Tsai Ing-Wen (Taiwan) – Get tech-savvy

This tiny island nation has surprised the global community with its successful dampening of the spread of COVID-19 within its borders. Despite its close proximity to China, where the original outbreak occurred, it has only 425 confirmed cases and 6 deaths. 

Despite its controversial exclusion from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ing-Wen alerted the organisation of its concerns about the virus in December 2019. WHO continued to align with China’s denial of human-to-human contact for weeks after this alert. Fortunately, Taiwan continued with its rigorous measures of testing, contact tracing and enforced quarantines with the help of data technology. 

Contact tracing using this information is being used to identify suspected patients and high-risk individuals and isolate them for 14 days. It also keeps track of individuals who break the quarantine and immediately contacts them to remind them of the risks of travel. Each person who stays in seclusion is given a $30 for each day of the two weeks to incentivise cooperation. 

In this modern era, technology can be an essential part of a crisis plan for any leader. Sharing key messaging, receiving information and interacting with your audience can be easy to do. But be wary; using technology in a crisis can be a double-edged sword. The use of personal data by large entities – especially governments – is still controversial with many fearing it will encourage total surveillance of citizens and the elimination of privacy.

Communications can also go awry if information has not been carefully checked. Even spelling errors are a cause for ridicule. You will need to weigh out the pros and cons carefully before implementing plans and make sure that all information provided is secure.  

4. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) – Unify

The decision to take early action against the spread of COVID-19 came at a tough time for New Zealand. The country was nearing the first anniversary of Christchurch shooting and a large nationwide memorial had been planned. But within the days of the first confirmed case within its borders, the event was cancelled and a mandatory 14-day self-isolation order was introduced for anyone who had travelled recently.  

What was set to be an already emotional time could have escalated quickly had it not been for Ardern’s empathetic approach and unified communications. The Atlantic has gone so far as to propose that Ardern’s empathy has made her ‘the most effective leader on the planet’.

New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, stood alongside Ardern and addressed the nation carefully and calmly to explain the complex issues with the virus and the trajectory they were on. Ardern talked about the war on Covid-19 and how “our team of five million” could each do their part to flatten the curve.

When the call to lockdown came, the citizens agreed that this was the best course of action. To date, Kiwi’s have reported 1113 confirmed cases, with 1036 recoveries and 14 deaths and will soon reopen schools and places of business.  

During a crisis, emotions can run high. Leadership and management is about learning to diffuse situations before they escalate beyond control. Keeping calm, communicating from a place of knowledge, and expressing humanity will create a lasting impression on your team and your audience. Empathy will never be wasted in times of crisis. 

5. Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa) – People first

Internationally, South Africa is being lauded for its swift and dramatic response to COVID-19. By implementing a nationwide lockdown before case numbers increased, we have been able to see a low mortality rate and a decrease in the number of new cases. After three weeks, the decision to extend for a further two weeks showed the world that we are serious about keeping citizens safe.

In making these decisions, President Ramaphosa has helped buy the country time to gear up its medical staff and facilities for the coming days. Some controversial decisions have been made, but ultimately, the President has been commended for his decisive action and commitment to saving lives. This shows that as a leader, sometimes you have to make nearly impossible decisions and have ongoing contingency plans to keep steering the ship as new challenges arise.

Many South African leaders are facing tough decisions right now as the economy further slumps. Learning to keep financially viable and maintaining staff during a crisis can be tough – especially when it expands over a long period. But when a company focuses on retaining as many people as possible, those employees become life-long ambassadors who will remain loyal through many other hardships. 


Leadership in uncertainty is an ever-evolving skill that needs to be kept sharp and ready for the post-COVID-19 reality. Now, more than ever, impactful leadership will be the key to a successful and effectively run operation. 

USB-ED has curated an Executive Development Programme that employs adaptive thinking and cognitive strategies that take a global perspective and translate it into local markets. 

USB-ED has seen the immediate need to change the dynamic of our executive education programmes so professionals can continue to pursue new qualifications while physical interactions are limited.

All face-to-face programmes have transitioned to remote learning until such time that the President, World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) deem it acceptable to resume normal activities. However, classes will keep to a live and synchronous schedule to enable classroom interactions and immediate engagement from the Learning Process Facilitators (LPF’s).

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