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Leadership in a Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
March 30, 2020

Public agencies tend to work in a relatively stable, slowly evolving environment. Their leadership tends to reflect that environment. At times, these agencies are challenged by focusing events, requiring rapid, dramatic changes to services. The COVID-19 pandemic is such a focusing event, requiring crisis leadership. The keys to leadership in a crisis are confidence, competence, adaptability, unity of effort and empathy.

  • Confidence: During a crisis, the public will be concerned with the ability of public agencies to meet the challenge. While public employees often toil unseen, public sector leaders, elected or official, should be highly visible. They must be seen to be confident the situation will be addressed, even if the task is daunting. Their confidence should be tempered with reality, such as in Winston Churchill’s comments at the end of the Battle of Britain. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” People respect the truth, and have greater confidence in trustworthy leadership. Be wary of being too positive, promising quick resolution, finding yourself over-promising and under-delivering, which might have catastrophic effects on confidence in public agencies.
  • Competence: Most challenges faced by public agencies are complex, reflective of modern society’s complexity. During the current pandemic, we see the need for expertise in areas such as community public health, individual patient care, medical research, logistics, law, crisis communications and economics. Besides these hard skills, we need competence in the soft skills needed to emotionally support individuals and communities. No one can or should be expected to be an expert in all fields. We must engage collaboratively with experts from many fields, recognizing the needs and concerns of many stakeholders. The greatest leaders will recognize this, identifying those with relevant areas of expertise, bringing them together and working with them to generate coherent, cogent approaches. They must engage respectfully, reflecting on all perspectives, but not insisting personal beliefs or values should trump objective fact. Public administration must focus on evidence-based best practices.
  • Adaptability: Unexpected, complex challenges defy simple approaches. They require experimentation, systems-thinking and the ability to adapt. Effective crisis leadership recognizes the need to move incrementally, using careful experimentation and accepting the reality of setbacks. They require new ways of thinking, often abandoning past paradigms. This does not just happen. Dysfunctional organizations do not miraculously become high-functioning in a crisis. If anything, they are likely to become more dysfunctional. To succeed, leaders must reflect upon the situation, develop partial solutions, assess any progress, then repeat the cycle. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.”
  • Unity of Effort: Classical views on leadership include the concept of unity of command, with one person in charge. While conceptually attractive, this ignores the reality of the modern public sector environment, which requires partnerships with multiple disciplines in multiple sectors. Each of these agencies is organized differently, with their own practices, authorities and values developed to meet their normal environment. Effective leadership in a crisis will find a way to coordinate these agencies, developing unity of effort, rather than seeking to impose a single structure on such a diverse group, or worse, letting them engage in an independent, uncoordinated manner. United States Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said of coordination in the aftermath of events such as Hurricane Katrina, “Even though it isn’t easy, …we have to get better at it.”
  • Empathy: During a crisis, people will be uncertain or scared. They need to feel others, especially public agencies and understand their concerns and are working to address them. This applies both to the community and to public employees. Public sector leaders must visibly show their concern. During the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, President George W. Bush visited workers on Ground Zero, dressed casually—blending in with the workers, sharing a message that WE had been attacked, that WE had all been affected, that, in our own way, WE were all working to meet the challenges, and that WE would come through this together. It was a powerful message of empathy and unity, and it provided a powerful boost to public confidence at a time when it was desperately needed. He could have said this from his office, but the message would have lacked equivalent impact. Effective leadership in a crisis will recognize the losses others have faced, recognize the challenges of those currently struggling, and promote a message of community—of social unity—so WE can emerge from the crisis as quickly and effectively as possible.


Public leaders, elected or appointed, are selected based on the needs of the time, which means they are selected primarily to lead in a stable environment. When a crisis occurs, they must change their leadership approach, developing a more collaborative, more experimental, more supportive approach to meet the challenges of the crisis. Crises in a complex social environment require strong, rational, team-based approaches, with the focus on the problem, not on the players. The lesson must be that working together, the WE can overcome.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty, previously serving in local government for over 30 years. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected].

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