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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

Crisis Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Crisis situations require a different type of leadership than what is required for managing the day-to-day operations of an organization.

Reflecting on my recent study on Crisis Management and Executive Leadership at Community Colleges, several useful themes emerged that should inform executive leaders – in and outside of higher education – when navigating their organizational response to the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is impacting their organizations.

A crisis is defined as a situation with a high level of ambiguity that may damage the long-term health of an organization. Crises are ambiguous because it is often difficult to confidently determine what factors led to their emergence, and they also create uncertainty about whether an organization can survive the crisis it is experiencing.

Many situations can be classified as crises by organizational leaders from shootings at a school or workplace to personnel scandals such as embezzlement, but the COVID-19 pandemic is producing a healthcare and economic crisis no organizational leader has faced in their lifetime. The only comparison we have is the 1918 influenza epidemic that spread across the globe after World War I. Some researchers currently estimate that the worldwide death toll due to the influenza virus may have reached 50-million.

Depending on their temperament, there can be some disparity about what constitutes a crisis from one leader to the next. What one leader may classify as a crisis, another may consider a challenge that is just inherent in the business of operating a complex organization. But given the breadth of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on people’s health and economic security, there should be no doubt that we are in the biggest crisis situation of our lifetimes.

Through interviews with twelve retired community college presidents from across the United States about their experience leading their organizations through crisis events, I began to form a theory called crisis salience.

This theory postulates that there are multiple levels of crisis from long-term, slow moving crises that can be handled over time to short-term, immediate crises that require a quick response. If an organizational leader perceives that the crisis situation they are facing requires an immediate, broad organizational level response, the higher their crisis salience rises.

What factors elevate an event to an immediate crisis for organizational leaders? One factor is how badly an event will impact the organization’s ability to achieve its mission. This may sound cynical on the surface. Many may question why the impact on people is not included in this statement. But people are part of any organization’s mission. It takes people to achieve the mission, and all organizations are serving people – whether they are students, consumers, or clients. COVID-19 is impacting all of these stakeholders.

The second factor that increases crisis salience is the degree to which the media is reporting on an event. The news media is currently covering every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic in a wall-to-wall, twenty-four a day news cycle. They are also doing their jobs scrutinizing the response of a variety of organizations from government agencies to medical supply manufacturers.

If you are a leader whose organization is experiencing even one of these factors, crisis salience theory predicts that three leadership competencies will become increasingly important to you – sensemaking, communicating, and assuming a front and center position in the response to the crisis.

Leading any complex organization involves gathering the best information to make the most effective decisions. This involves conducting one’s own research through reading reports and studies, gathering input from an internal leadership team, and consulting with outside experts. This sensemaking process not only helps with making informed leadership decisions, but it also informs the next important leadership competency – communicating.

Knowing how to message policies, share relevant information with stakeholders, and help employees make meaning of their work is always important for an organizational leader. But it becomes an even more important competency during a crisis. In addition to communicating relevant information to internal and external stakeholders, it is additionally important for leaders to effectively communicate to the media. Hiring experts such as public relations professionals with expertise in crisis communications is highly recommended.

Finally, many organizations now practice a more flattened out, distributed leadership model where consensus building is wisely more valued than hierarchal leadership. But crisis situations are different. These are moments when leaders feel compelled to take a front and center position in the response – and their followers look for them to do so as well.

If these are impulses that you are feeling as an organizational leader, listen to them.

As leaders grapple with how to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic, they would be wise to reflect on how they can engage in information gathering from internal and external experts to make effective decisions, communicate effectively to a variety of stakeholders – especially the media, and take a front and center position to lead their organizations, These three competencies will help leaders navigate this crisis so their organizations are in the best position to thrive once this pandemic is over, which - as the influenza outbreak in 1918 demonstrates - will happen.

Daniel Tarker is an administrator at North Seattle College, a faculty member at Shoreline Community College, and a freelance organizational leadership consultant. This opinion piece is based on his dissertation “Crisis Management and Executive Leadership at Community Colleges” completed at Oregon State University.

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