leadership studies professor Gill Hickman and psychology professor Laura Knouse

How leaders can adapt in a COVID world

July 6, 2020


The pandemic has uprooted how the world conducts business. We asked five faculty members for their thoughts on areas ranging from the economy to the state of journalism to judicial impacts. So far we’ve heard from faculty about the economy and the judicial system. In this issue, we hear from psychology professor Laura Knouse and leadership studies professor Gill Hickman about leadership. Knouse and Hickman are co-authors of a new book on this topic, When Leaders Face Personal Crisis, and shared their combined thoughts. 

Q: What issues might leaders be facing now that they weren’t before the pandemic?
While attending to the needs of their organizations during COVID-19, leaders are very likely facing their own personal crises and dealing with the challenges of their employees’ personal crises. Our research has found that consideration of the leader as a potential person-in-crisis is rare. Because we often think of leaders as more competent and powerful than non-leaders, we tend to think of them as less vulnerable to the stresses and life events that impact everyone. Our research, however, suggests that this is not necessarily the case and that the leader’s well-being can affect the well-being of the organization.

Q: What aspects of leadership are most important right now? 
One of the most important aspects of leadership during COVID-19 is generating responses that are flexible, intentional, and compassionate. Each crisis, each organization and its people, and each leader is unique. Therefore, leadership entails convening the collective or team to find the best possible adaptive responses from their creative and generative thinking, talent and expertise. In other words, this is no time for “lone-wolf” leadership when there is so much capacity in the group.

Our review of the leadership studies literature also suggests that people want to be able to trust their leaders and that, under certain circumstances, leaders showing vulnerability while expressing care can be powerful builders of interpersonal strength in the organization. For example, we found some very interesting preliminary evidence that the majority of leaders in our study who had navigated personal crisis found a slight positive effect on their relationships with others in the organization.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders as they navigate this health crisis?
Amid all that you are doing for your organization, don’t deny or brush aside the effect of the crisis on you and your well-being. Don’t deny or avoid your need for social support, brief respite, or other positive coping strategies. These are investments not just in your own well-being, but in your competency as a leader. If you are struggling, make strategic decisions about who to disclose to within the organization about these stresses and what kinds of support you will request from whom — for example, asking a trusted co-worker to “check” your decision-making in case you are concerned it may be impacted by a personal crisis. Consider asking for levels and types of help that you might not otherwise request from those around you during this time. Your relationships may actually strengthen through this experience. And remember that it’s possible to show both strength and vulnerability, both of which may deepen your coworkers’ trust in you as a leader who is both competent and authentic.

Q: What factors contribute to the ways leaders experience and cope with personal crises?
In our work, we found that a variety of factors were important including the nature of the crisis, the types of coping strategies the leader employed, the level of social support available to them, their decisions around disclosure of the crisis to others in the organization, and —perhaps the most under-recognized factor — the nature of the organization’s interpersonal context.

Organizations where it’s psychologically safe to be yourself and disclose vulnerability were associated with leader perceptions that they had more successfully navigated personal crisis. Thus, we recommend that organizations cultivate a culture of reciprocal care where every person matters and each person’s welfare and dignity is respected and supported.