I teach a course on leadership at Cleveland State University (CSU) Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. When the coronavirus outbreak upended our lives, I pivoted quickly and focused the remainder of the class on crisis leadership in uncertain times. I called it “CoronaLeadership.” As the crisis unfolded hour by hour, day by day, we had the rare opportunity to see and experience different styles of leadership in real time.
Here are five crisis leadership lessons that my students and I uncovered from our observations and conversations with leaders.
1. Take charge. When the coronavirus outbreak occurred, CSU President Harlan Sands quickly formed a Pandemic Response Team led by Vice Admiral (Ret.) Dr. Forrest Faison — the former surgeon general of the Navy and CSU’s senior vice president of research and innovation and chief health care strategy officer. Vice Admiral Faison led the planning and response to SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola and influenza for the Navy and Marine Corps. Choosing a health care expert to lead the team and other speedy decisions created a sense that the university was providing expert leadership.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” describes how President Franklin Roosevelt prepared for World War II by asking for a program that would allow the U.S. to produce more than 10 times its 1940 capacity for planes. He asked for the ability to turn out 50,000 planes in one year, and he got it. What seemed like an impossible demand ended up motivating American producers. They needed parachutes badly, so manufacturers of silk ribbons made parachutes. Toy companies made compasses, typewriter companies produced rifles and piano factories produced airplane motors. He created a bold vision and brought people together to execute it for the common good.
2. Lean into uncertainty. Beware of leaders who say they know the answer. The single most important leadership quality in a crisis is knowing what you don’t know and having the humility to admit it. Historian Daniel Boorstin noted, “The main obstacle to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” Show your vulnerability — it can be liberating to admit you don’t have all the answers. Learn to live with ambiguity. Collecting information is important, but leaders must not allow the search for a perfect solution prevent the execution of a good one.
3. See with new eyes. Author Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the ways you look at things, the things you look at change.” Leading in a crisis means looking around corners and looking at problems from different angles and perspectives. Assemble a team with diverse perspectives and views, and then listen and be prepared to change your mind. The temptation is to make decisions immediately, but that’s usually a mistake. The best leaders create an array of options and contingencies, play out scenarios and imagine new solutions to new problems. Leaders must constantly reframe their understanding of what’s happening. What was true yesterday may no longer be true today.
4. Don’t hide the bad news. Back in December 2019, there were signs of a dangerous virus. Chinese authorities moved aggressively to hide and bury the information. The result was that loss of crucial time when the virus could have been contained. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson noted, “Hiding bad news is virtually a reflex in most organizations, but thoughtful leaders recognize that speaking up early and truthfully is a vital strategy in a fast-moving crisis.”
Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily 2 p.m. briefings with Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton has kept Ohioans informed with facts and data, even when the news hasn’t been positive. The transparency has helped create a sense of community that we are all in this together. Leaders can’t communicate too much or too often in a crisis. Key information should be handled with the three Rs: review, repeat, reinforce. If information is shared only once, it cannot be assumed everyone has received it, or if they did, that they understand it. In an information vacuum, people tend to MSU — make stuff up — and usually, it’s worse than the reality.
5. Be a realistic optimist. There is a thin line between realistic optimism and irrational cheerfulness that leads to self-delusion. Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking military officer in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. He was tortured more than 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment. When asked how he survived, he said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end.” He was then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.” That answer surprised many. He said, “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to get out by Christmas. And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say we’re going to be out by Easter, and Easter would come and go. And then Thanksgiving would come and go, and then Christmas would come and go again. They died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” Stockdale’s lesson became known as the Stockdale Paradox.
Leaders must be confident, optimistic and resilient without creating a sense of false optimism that misleads people into thinking the crisis has ended before it really has. The good news is that this crisis will end. The challenge is whether we will learn its leadership lessons.
Lee Fisher is dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He is the former ohio attorney general, lieutenant governor, director of the Ohio Department of Development, chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, state representative and state senator.