Public Leadership Through Crisis Part 2: Know Your Motivation, Put Communications & Key People First

Posted on March 18, 2020


Today’s blog is written by ELGL member Matt Andrews and cross posted from our friends at the Building State Capability program at Harvard University.

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

When the storm, wind and rain, of crisis is coming (or has come), how do you start to lead?

Building on my earlier blog post, we are sharing two posts today with some rapid ideas on how leading organizations, towns, cities, regions and countries might start thinking about leadership in the face of crisis (like the Covid-19 crisis). We know that the approach everyone takes will be different, and should be  fitted to context. And it is hard to offer ‘perfect’ answers. But we are trying to be responsive and helpful by pulling together some materials we think can empower leaders in times of crisis.

We are asking other academics, practitioners, and more to comment on these blogs, contact us with their own ideas, links to materials, etc. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it space, but one where we want to foster real learning and sharing by the large community of people who we know care about public service. The more lessons are shared, the more help will be offered.

My first blog raised questions, based on Nancy Koehn’s work, about:

  1. The role of motivation in public leaders in times of crisis (and the importance of knowing you are on a ‘worthy mission’),
  2. The importance of ensuring public interest drives leaders’ decisions (being ‘thou’ centered instead of ‘I’ centered),
  3. The fact that you as a leader will have doubts (about your capabilities, and more) but the key is not giving into these doubts, and
  4. The idea that leadership is about helping others to overcome their limits and ‘do better, harder’ things in the face of a crisis.   

I want to pick up on the last idea that, as someone in public leadership, you are here to help your people get through the crisis you are all in.  Your job is not just to manage the technical dimensions  of the crisis, or the  logistics, or the timeline of activities. Your job is to help your people work through their limits to rise up and make the small and big, temporary and permanent, hard and not-so-hard changes required to get through the high winds and rough waves you are encountering.

Remember the quote from David Foster Wallace (late great english professor and author): “Real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Harvard Kennedy School students will recognize how this definition of  leadership overlaps with those of Ron HeifetzHe holds, for instance, that leadership involves “mobilizing organizations, communities, or societies to let go of ‘their worst’ from the past, while holding onto and combining ‘their best’ with ‘new lessons’ from the wider world so that they can adapt to change, survive and thrive.”

Continue reading Matt’s post on the BSC blog,
and stay tuned for parts III & IV!

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