In the Midst Of Crisis And Recovery, Who’s Best Equipped to Lead?

As we near a turning point of COVID-19, and lift our heads up from the health side of this crisis, there will soon come a time for us to rebuild American businesses and our economy.

I get the sense that many in the media, financial markets, economists and those in government believe it’s simply a matter of flipping a switch and things will magically get back to normal. Flooding the markets with stimulus bailouts, low-interest loans and liquidity overlooks the fact that there’s much work for all of us to do. Don’t fool yourselves, it will be a monumental task to get the U.S. economy back up and running. So it is that one must ask the next question, “Are we any more prepared for phase two of this crisis than we were for our initial response?”

Throughout this crisis, leadership from the President down has been called into question. Even our business leaders aren’t sure what to do next. Some have responded brilliantly and admirably, others not so much. Many leaders have echoed sentiments like, “This crisis is hitting us on multiple levels. It’s unprecedented. We don’t know what to do?” 

According to the ODM Group, “In 2018, nearly 8 of 10 of business leaders thought their companies were only a year away from crisis. However, it turns out, few did anything about it.

As someone who’s been connected to recruitment of high-potential talent (HIPOs) and leadership development (LD) for most of my career I, like so many others, have recently pondered questions related to our recovery. Chief among these are: “Will our response to the crisis cause leadership to change?” And, more importantly, “Who’s best equipped to lead?” 

Sure, I have learned some lessons of traditional leadership. I know during normal times leadership has its challenges, but that real leadership shows its true self in challenging times of crisis such as these.

The predictability of our future response is less apparent to me. For instance, I question our ability to face up to, and lead through, new challenges caused by change. Shouldn’t we humans – as everything else does, and is, doing in our natural world – evolve and adapt to occurrences of “new norms” happening all around our world? Are we? If so, who is the most equipped to lead?

As important as this topic seems, it is surprising how few credible resources actually exist in this field. Search “crisis management” or “business continuity” and see for yourself. Most come from management consultancies who sell (self-interested) services in these areas. And, as most panaceas of business would have you believe, there are a lot of technology solutions. I could be wrong, but pushing even more technologies seems overly presumptuous, more complex and, again, self serving to me. Wasn’t work invented by humans and isn’t leadership a natural form of human activity? I understand why hands-on manufacturing and distribution is susceptible to virus spread, but it’s still disturbing when I read one of the outcomes of COVID-19 will be increased use of automation.

Nevertheless, until we buy wholesale into artificial intelligence (AI), and unconditionally leave judgement and decision making up to technology, leadership will remain a human endeavor. 

Back to my question on who’s best equipped to lead. As I mentioned, credible research is limited (also dated) and it would help to have more empirical data to draw upon in this field. Several research studies I have sourced were dated from the 2000s and 2010s. None were empirical, but one recent report called Global Crisis Survey, from 2019 by PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), caught my attention. It polled 2,000 global companies across 4,500 crises.

Here are a few of the more important findings I pulled from their report:

  1. “There’s every reason to believe that the crisis will continue to play an outside role in business outcomes.”
  2. “Nearly three quarters of companies 74% sought outside help either during or after their biggest crisis.”
  3. “You need a crisis leader. This cannot happen without one central person given the clear mandate and authority to develop (and implement) a crisis management program.”
  4. “Crisis preparedness/recovery (i.e., business continuity) is more than an opportunity: it will be a competitive advantage. We believe there is long term value in being crisis fit and see a future where managers and investors look to a “crisis preparedness index” as a key performance indicator.”

You can read whatever you want into the first two findings. However, while I realize there’s self-interest, I have more reasons to agree with 2,000 global companies across 4,500 crises than disagree.

As for the third takeaway, perhaps it’s somewhat obvious and confirmation in hindsight but, please keep in mind the difference between saying and doing. The first category of “sayers” were 8 of 10 of business leaders (cited by the ODM Group above) who thought their companies were only a year away from crisis and did nothing about it. The 2,000 global companies here participating in PwC’s report, DID in fact work through a crisis. They were forced into “doing”. Having been through a crisis, they would know how to operate, and what to recommend, in an environment of recovery.

Prior to COVID-19, I would have said the fourth finding is suspect, perhaps astounding. Six weeks into the outbreak, with a long way to go before it peaks when we get back to work and start recovery, not so much. In fact, it seems more than likely to, and actually could, happen. Peter Drucker, a pioneer of modern business management, was the first to say, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Most organizations today, including many I’ve studied and worked with, practice Drucker’s advice that, “Anything of importance to business should be measured.” If I were a large stakeholder who has seen my fortunes evaporate during this crisis, I would absolutely want to know how the companies I invest in were prepared for response and recovery to a crisis.

Which brings me back to my original question, “Who’s best equipped to lead during a crisis and recovery?” For me, this will be an ongoing pursuit to identify and publish empirical research that narrows the field of discovery down to find out. As with the virus itself, no one is capable of making accurate predictions. However, with more evidential observation and experiences to share, we can move closer to being in a state of preparedness and recovery the next time anything out of the ordinary happens to hit. Plus, such knowledge will serve companies extremely well NOW as they work through recovery and rebuilding in the months, and year, ahead. Leadership in the “new norm” of situations we are increasingly experiencing has never been more timely or important.

Although anecdotal, in addition to PwC’s report, here’s what I have turned up thus far:

Our Military Leadership Commands Respect

1.) Source of Crisis & Recovery

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (several references including passage below from pgs.126-127)

“My first surprise was to discover that the military people there thought, behaved, and acted like philosophers. They thought out of the box, like traders (a good trait according to Taleb), except much better and without fear of introspection. An assistant secretary of defense was among us, but had I not known his profession I would have thought he was a practitioner of skeptical empiricism (a reference Taleb reserves for those who earn his highest respect). I came out of the meeting realizing that only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty — unlike academics and corporate executives using other people’s money.”

“When I expressed my amazement to Laurence, another finance person sitting next to me, he told me that the military collected more genuine intellects and risk thinkers than most if not all other professions. Defense people want to understand the epistemology of risk.”

2.) Financial Perspective

CFO Magazine

“Leave No One Behind: In a crisis, leaders must connect with, motivate, and inspire others, and show genuine compassion. In the military, leaders put the safety and well-being of others before themselves. I’ve met a number of military leaders who led during periods of conflict and voluntarily told me, “I’ve never lost a soldier.” This reveals a deep mindset of humility and accountability, rather than hubris and bravado.”

3.) Political Perspective


According to Politico, “Minority Leader Chuck Schumer clashed Thursday over the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.”

“Schumer appealed to President Trump to establish a czar with a military background to oversee the production of medical equipment, including ventilators and personal protection equipment.”

Diversity Plays A Role

1.) Fortune

New Study Reveals That Diversity and Inclusion May Be the Key to Beating the Next Recession.

“Recessions typically haven’t been part of the corporate conversation around diversity and inclusion. But new research shows that D&I efforts present a potent source of strength for organizations as they weather tough times.”

Thanks for reading and please return if you have an interest in this topic. I will continue to cover it and post any worthwhile resources I find here. Please leave any comments to this post below. Thanks again for your time and suggestions.

BACKGROUND & DISCLAIMER: Although I’m still growing my knowledge, and open to new sources of information, I have seen many sides of leadership, diversity and recruitment. This includes work I did with PhDs in the field of organizational development for corporations in private-sector corporations such as GE and GlaxoSmithKline. I have also built a leadership pipeline initiative called Military MBA and through my writings and research have been exposed to benefits of gender diversity. And, while I readily admit to biases (anyone who doesn’t is in denial), the goal of this research project is to identify resources from any business, organizational sector or profession to help during times of crisis, rebuilding and recovery.

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