Leading through COVID-19: four lessons from war

Sep 30, 2020

Dr Joanne Murphy distils four common themes from the battlefield to help you lead and manage through the COVID-19 crisis and into an uncertain future.

The COVID-19 pandemic is frequently referred to as a ‘war’. We hear about the battle for ventilators and the need for collective action against an invisible enemy. But what does the reality of wartime tell us about managing through, and beyond, a system shock like COVID-19? While there is no rulebook to guide our responses, we do know a great deal about the positive behaviour of leaders in other extreme situations, navigating rapid system-wide change, and facing risk and imminent danger.

My research on leaders and managers operating in extremis provides some insight into the leadership behaviours and practices that work best in stressful and complicated environments. The individuals I have spoken to have managed to maintain organisational life and direction in contexts of emergency, violence and disruption. These include police and other ‘blue light’ services, those running businesses and public services in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, entrepreneurs in the Basque country during the ETA campaigns and, most extreme of all, those driving organisational activity in Bosnia during the dreadful siege of Sarajevo.

The dynamic nature of these environments is akin to the large-scale systems change we are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, and effective responses require a similar set of leadership skills and attributes. Four common themes emerge from these experiences that will help us think about how to lead and manage in extremis, and which are relevant to both these times and the challenges that lie ahead.

  1. Organisation is everything.
  2. Let go of the old to make sense of the new.
  3. One leader is not enough.
  4. Be courageous.

1. Organisation is everything

Many of us will feel that we understand the role of military leadership in conflict, but what do civilian leaders do in war? In 1984, the city of Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics, memorable for the triumphal success of British figure skaters Torvill and Dean. Only a few years later, in 1992, the Bosnian war brought the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1,425 days – the longest city siege in modern history. Ismet Kumalic, a director in a state company in the former Yugoslavia, lived in the purpose-built ‘Olympic’ suburb of Dobrinja which, on the frontline of Serb shell and sniper fire from the surrounding hills, was quickly isolated. Ismet became the civilian administrator, accountable for keeping 30,000 people alive under daily bombardment, with meagre supplies of food or fuel. During the siege, he and his team achieved the extraordinary, including the development of a 10km tunnel network to allow people to move between buildings and avoid sniper fire, the cultivation of every inch of available land to grow vegetables, and the management of a school and medical unit. While many residents were killed, Ismet reflects with pride that no one died of starvation (though sometimes food was rationed to just 300 calories a day). He has three messages about leadership in such an extreme environment.

  • The first is about the position of leaders: “In such a situation, you are not that important… you are at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. You are carrying them on your shoulders.”
  • The second is about management: “Organisation is everything. You cannot succeed without organisation. You must think of everything.”
  • And the third is about decision-making: “You have no time. You have to make decisions. To make decisions without time, you have to be brave.”

2. Let go of the old to make sense of the new 

As in more normal organisational contexts, in extreme environments, it is also important to distinguish between leadership and management. Management relates to how an organisation functions, the implementation of plans and objectives, and the maintenance of a ‘steady-state’. Leadership is different. It relates to change, communication and vision. Leaders are ‘pathfinders’, able to articulate a shared vision and understand strategy as a dynamic process that is always under review.

During periods of crisis and threat, people look to leaders to take action. This requires those tasked with leadership to make sense of confusing environments and mixed messages from stakeholders. The ability to let go of existing models in the face of change and embrace new ways of making sense of the shifting world around you is a key requirement. Leaders need to be self-aware and avoid clinging on to old rules or ways of doing things. Successful leaders in periods of extreme change become more receptive to input from followers, more likely to integrate their efforts into teams, more approachable, and less intimidating.

When stress is heightened, certain qualities and behaviours become essential. They include the ability to prioritise, understanding the significance of role clarity, and effective communication. One police leader, who had been instrumental in the controversial and emotional transition from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: “Just because you think you have said something, it doesn’t mean that people have heard it. You need to present the message in multiple forms. The more important that message is, the more mediums you use for distribution.”

3. One leader is not enough

It is not uncommon to perceive leadership as involving charismatic individuals, superheroes who can lead through adversity and overcome incredible odds to succeed. However, in extremely challenging environments, such individual leaders are rarely enough. Instead, we see the cultivation of social networks of leadership.

The Basque city of Bilbao features the Guggenheim Museum, an architectural marvel designed by Frank Gehry. This beautiful building is just one aspect of a much broader strategy to revitalise and reframe Bilbao away from its reputation as being polluted by its industrial heritage and scarred by the violent ETA campaign for independence and the equally ferocious security response of the Spanish state. Economic regeneration in such an environment seems almost hopeless.

When those who worked for the reimagining of the region and its economic regeneration reflect on their achievements, they speak about two important requirements. First is the importance of teams of leaders operating collectively, and the capacity to navigate troubled waters together with a set of common objectives. This requires collectivisation of leadership, which can be a challenging approach for many.

Second, for the revitalisation of Bilbao, it was the primacy of beauty and aesthetics. Change, especially in the aftermath of extreme adversity, requires hard work and a little bit of luck – but also an understanding that there is more to regeneration than the economy. In this case, the creation of a beautiful and authentic cityscape, with pride in the built and natural environments, provided a core motivational dimension.

4. Courage in the face of fear

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a physical health crisis; it also presents a considerable threat to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Anxiety caused by lockdown and isolation, fear of losing one’s job and economic hardship are all overlaid with the danger of ill-health and mortality associated with the virus itself.

Those who have managed businesses during conflict often speak about their fear, and sometimes terror. The spectre of having to deal with paramilitaries on the one hand and the police on the other left many feeling isolated and alone. One businessman commented on his investment in a bar and the early days of the business, “We had a door that squeaked, and I thought, ‘sometime in my life I’m going to work in this bar, and that door will squeak, and my stomach won’t tighten. I’ll not have fear in me’… the first year was just like hell”.

At times of extreme stress, it is easy to default to task-based decision-making and forget the human element, which is critical to maintaining personal and organisational resilience. The individual courage required to lead, and to keep leading, in such environments should not be underestimated. At an organisational level, keeping spirits up in the worst of times is also a critical leadership skill, one that is often lost in the chaos of rapid change. Others have framed it differently. Irish diplomats tasked with crafting a workable peace process amid the seemingly intractable Troubles spoke movingly of having “a duty of hope”, an understanding of both professional duty and personal emotional response. However it is conceived, it represents the last pillar of leadership for these challenging times.

Dr Joanne Murphy is Academic Director of the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s University Belfast.