Coronavirus and Leadership in times of Crisis: Why Don’t Leaders Learn from Others’ Success and Failure?

We have a global crisis on our hands, and our leaders need to learn how to appropriately respond to it. Back in December 2019, the first cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) were detected in Wuhan, China. Three months later, global infections have approached 218,000 among 148 countries across six continents (Antarctica is the only unaffected continent) and killed more than 8,700 people.[1] Yet, it is clear that the spread of virus is picking up speed.

As the whole globe works together to manage the epidemic and slow spread of the virus, the effectiveness and capacity of local authorities in crisis management have been magnified under the scrutiny of global media and tested by the growing number of infections that is updated live worldwide.

With the aforementioned information, it is too easy to provide examples of poor crisis leadership and how they’ve made the crisis worse:

  • Chinese local authorities’ attempts at censoring information concerning a SARS-like disease and failing to contain the infection resulted in a nationwide epidemic eruption. Not to mention, governors and city officials tried to save face by covering up the real number of infections.
  • The Japanese health ministry’s poor management of the Diamond Princess cruise coronavirus quarantine led to a roughly 20-percent infection rate among all passengers and staff members onboard; the untested (later confirmed infected) passengers left ship and would further spread the virus.[2]
  • South Korea’s failure to uncover the tracks of infected cult members and deal with them in an effective manner rendered a rapid increase the in total number of infections across the country.

However, these negative examples didn’t help alarm and improve infection management across the globe — and neither did any experience of success. With the Chinese government showing success with containing the infected population, lowering the number of infections and getting the epidemic under control, cases are getting more concerning in other parts of the world (e.g., Japan, North Korea, Italy and Iran).

Moreover, what shocked people the most is this is not the first time human race has been faced with a global crisis, and it surely isn’t the first instance of a major global outbreak: SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2018), etc. Why do many governments still seem so clumsy when dealing with these outbreaks? Why do people still show distrust and dissatisfaction with authorities? Why can’t leaders learn from the success and failure of others?

To answer these questions, we first need to clarify another question: What does successful crisis management look like?

A crisis is defined as a low-probability, high-consequence event.[3] Crisis management isn’t unique to public incidents; private institutions and businesses are also constantly tested. Effective crisis management can be assessed via the following dimensions:[4]

  • Making things happen
  • Getting the job done
  • Fulfilling a symbolic need for direction and guidance

Making things happen refers to successfully organizing, directing and implementing actions that can minimize the impact of a threat. Of course emergency prevention and preparedness are also important for effective crisis management. But given the fact that there is a global shortage of medical masks to fight coronavirus,[5] no one in this case is 100 percent well prepared.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, we start to see that other than a few national health organizations, public health institutions in many countries are in disarray as they scramble to keep up with the fast spreading of the epidemic.

The failure to react and manage this crisis quickly presented a paradox of modern emergency management: On the one hand, managing a crisis requires high levels of skill at organization and planning, but on the other hand, it is spontaneous.[6]  Traditional ways to handle resources, procedures, policies and structures are no longer adequate.[7] This demands leaders’ abilities to adapt to the situation, innovate and take initiatives. Regardless of how well they do, it may not completely fit the circumstances, hence the uncertainty.

Such uncertainty has led to the practices of Laissez-faire leadership for some people, where leaders are indecisive, uninvolved, withdrawn when needed and reluctant to take initiative. (Click HERE to read more on laissez-faire leadership).

In times of crisis, we can’t afford to wait.

What’s worse is that under the influence of bureaucratic cultures and narrowly focused career ascendancy, some leaders tend to focus more on their self-interests and self-protectiveness first[8]   (Chinese officials hiding the initial infection numbers and censoring those who voiced concerns about a SARS-like virus; Japanese officials restricting testing for COVID-19 to artificially lower the number of infected, etc.), which delay their reactions to the crisis at its first sight.

When people can’t get information and guidance from official channels, they resort to rumors. Rumors can do great harms to organizations, and people are more likely to experience fear, anger and anxiety as a result.[9] To combat rumors, leaders need to communicate frequently and with charisma (See “Fulfill the symbolic role to direct and guide others”  later in this article for more).

Getting the job done involves coordinating different resources and agents to enable cooperation that previously didn’t exist and creating bypasses when things don’t work.3  Therefore, an efficient collaborative process and an adaptive system for collaboration are essential for crisis management.6

Taking the Chinese government’s reaction for example: The rigidity of its government and organization structure largely hindered its ability to react to the virus quickly and led to a nationwide outbreak. However, the central-focused nature of the government has also enabled the country to stop all other activities and prioritize every resource it has to get situation under control quickly.

The unique feature of their political structure makes some of the Chinese’ efforts hard to replicate. But their other protocols concerning quarantining the suspected cases and the infected, promoting public awareness of self-protection and sanitation are easy to learn. However, like many countries in this epidemic, organizations sometimes can only focus on the uniqueness of their own situation but fail to see the common causes and solutions across different cases.

Meanwhile, to get things done, leaders should connect the purposes and functions of different organizations or units, as well as think beyond their immediate job descriptions and scope of authority, to develop a shared course of action among different parties. 7

To achieve this goal, leaders not only need to excel at coordination and execution, they also need strong abilities to find and use common causes to motivate others to cooperate.

The last and probably most important part in crisis leadership is for leaders to fulfill the symbolic role to direct and guide others. To do this, an efficient leader should be prepared to act confident and positive, and communicate frequently with details and transparency.

Because during a given crisis, chaos and ambiguity ensues. In situations like these, people naturally look for guidance from their leaders. An effective leader in times of crisis is a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader is both visionary and responsive. He/she is very active and expressive, can link others’ values and intrinsic motivation to their actions and collective purposes, expresses confidence in controlling the situation and in his/her own capability, is responsive to questions and keeps things moving and gives the public tangible data and outcomes. [10],[11]

When there is a lack of such a symbolic figure during crisis management, it is hard to instill trust and confidence in followers. Again, in this COVID-19 crisis, some countries did a great job at setting leaders up as the faces of crisis management. However, others failed to do so. If you can name a few public figures who you get your daily COVID-19 information from, your public health authority is doing a decent job; If not, now you know how they need to improve.

Competent and effective leaders are important during crisis management. To get the crisis under control, leaders need to look beyond themselves and their current jobs to seek connection/cooperation, set up clear channels of communication and step up to provide people with guidance and confidence.

Last but not least, to avoid contracting the virus, everyone can do their part to help respond to this emerging public health threat.


[1] World Health Organization: Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports. Retrieved from

[2] Chappell, B. (February, 2020). Coronavirus update: Diamond princess passengers leave ship as expert slams quarantine.

[3]   Comer, D.R. (2010). Special issue: Crisis management education. Journal of Management Education, 34, 782-783.

[4] Boin A., Kuipers, S., & Overdijk, W. (2013). Leadership in times of crisis: A framework for assessment. International Review of Public Administration, 18, 79-91.

[5] Gunia, A. (February, 2020). There aren’t enough medical masks to fight coronavirus. Here’s why it’s not going to get better anytime soon. Retrieved from

[6] Waugh Jr., W., & Streib, G. (2006). Collaboration and leadership for effective emergency management. Public Administration Review, Special Issue, 131-140.


[7] Boal, K.B., & Bryson, J.M. (1988). Charismatic leadership: A phenomenological and structural approach. In J.G. Hunt, B.R. Baliga, H.P. Dachler, & C.A. Schriesheim (Eds.), Emerging Leadership Vistas (pp. 11-28). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

[8] Marcus, L.J, Dorn, B.C., & Henderson, J.M. (2006). Meta-leadership and national emergency preparedness: A model to build government connectivity. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science. 4, 128-137.

[9] DiFonzo, N., Bordia, P., & Rosnow, R. L. (1994). Reining in rumors. Organizational Dynamics23, 47-62.

[10] Hunt, J. G., Boal, K. B., & Dodge, G. E. (1999). The effects of visionary and crisis-responsive charisma on followers: An experimental examination of two kinds of charismatic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly10, 423-448.

[11] Davis, K. M., & Gardner, W. L. (2012). Charisma under crisis revisited: Presidential leadership, perceived leader effectiveness, and contextual influences. The Leadership Quarterly23, 918-933.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.