Managing COVID – 19 – Is there anything else to say?

Leadership in times of crisis

– by Peter Wilkinson

The flood of webinars, online training courses and other publications on managing COVID-19 and business continuity planning is amazing. Some appear to be very high quality. I specialise in low probability but high consequence events (especially “major hazards” and process safety management, PSM) and often write on these topics.

Why haven’t I written anything on COVID-19, I am asked? The answer is straightforward. For the most part, I have colleagues in Noetic who have more experience of epidemics and BCP. I also see the professional institutions active in this space too – such as the Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS). The AIHS have two webinars alone this week on these topics.

So, is there anything else to say?

At first, I thought not. My colleagues in Noetic are already busy working with numerous clients on BCP and how to effectively lead a remote workforce. See for example:

But the leadership question stuck in my mind. Yes, there probably is something else to say! What does good senior leadership look like in times of crisis?

Noetic studied what characterises good leadership in times of crisis. We looked at the lessons from:

  • Disease Outbreaks – Equine Influenza Outbreak (NSW, 2008)
  • Major Bushfires – Canberra Bushfires (ACT, 2003), Eyre Peninsula Wangary Fires (SA, 2005), Toodyay Fires (WA 2009), Margaret River Fires (WA, 2011), Pinary Fires (SA, 2015)
  • Floods – Victorian Floods (Vic, 2011)
  • Tropical Cyclones – Cyclone Larry (Qld, 2006), Tropical Cyclone Yasi (Qld, 2011)
  • Industrial Incidents and Oil Spills – Montara Blowout and Oil Spill (US, 2009), Macondo Deepwater Horizon Blowout and Oil Spill (US, 2010), Wivenhoe Dam Operations Failure (Qld, 2011)

What did we find? A common pattern emerged. Leaders, and their teams, were unable to apply their knowledge and skills effectively to a situation that was either so novel, or of a scale that is beyond their experience and conception.

Key issues which emerged for senior leaders were:

  • Approachability – bad news needs to be transmitted quickly. If personnel fear their senior leader’s reaction, information transmission will be delayed. Sometimes, team members attempt to solve an intractable situation themselves, rather than seeking assistance
  • Sensible optimism – encourages others to work effectively for long periods during the crisis, helping to create a resilient organisation. Pessimistic senior leaders can have a deleterious effect on staff. Sensible optimism is grounded in evidence and effective leaders celebrate small wins and build momentum.
  • Calmness – if senior leaders resort to shouting, bashing on desks or maps and other aggressive actions or even if they are constantly flustered, they instil fear and break relationships, causing optimism to diminish and reducing the likelihood of a successful response to the crisis. Staff will get their cues from their leaders on how they should behave.

For a full account of our study – see Effective Senior Leadership in Times of Crisis, which can be found at: