The rapid impact of the coronavirus crisis posed a challenge like never before for leaders globally. It is easy to understand why so many missed opportunities for decisive action and honest communication. 

When uncertain, human instinct and management training can cause leaders, out of fear, to misstep and unnecessarily make people anxious. Leaders delay action and downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer. With a pandemic in play, ultimately this left many leaders behind in trying to control the impacts of the crisis , as by the time the scope of the impact to their business was clear, the ability to act was long gone.

Success laid with those leaders that acted in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion. Leaders that recognized the element of risk in a definitive and early strategic move and that mistakes were inevitable, but placed faith in their teams to innovate and correct course.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic back on March 21 was bold and engendered public support. That day, Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level Covid-19 alert system. Modeled on fire risk systems already in use in New Zealand, this familiar approach set clear guidelines for how the government would step up its response — and what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew.

Ardern’s communication was clear, honest, and compassionate: It acknowledged the daily sacrifices to come and inspired people to forge ahead in bearing them together.

“Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.”

So what lessons can we take from those leaders who overcame their instincts to lead effectively?

1 // ACT 

The risks of delaying decision-making are often invisible. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action is needed is dangerous . 

2 // COMMUNICATE

It takes wisdom and some courage to understand that communicating with transparency is a vital antidote to this risk. Provide honest and accurate descriptions of reality — be as clear as humanly possible about what is known, what is anticipated, and what it means for your business and people. It is crucial to convey your message in a way that people can understand.

3 // RESPOND TO MISSTEPS

No need to play the 'blame-game'. Stay focused on the goal and look ahead to continue solving the next and most pressing problems.

4 // SHIFT THE GOALS

Given the evolution of the pandemic,  leaders must be willing to constantly update priorities, even daily. Look to your greatest asset, your team, to gather information and learn rapidly - leveraging the teams ability to expertly adapt and shift accordingly.

5 // LEAD WITH EMPATHY

Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis means making oneself available to feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes — to lead with empathy. Leaders must steer away from the instinct to remain rational, professional and dispassionate and use their position of authority to set a culture of care, well being and humanity. 

In the coming months we will have a choice, regress or form new positive leadership habits and redefine what it means to show up as a leader.

What good leadership looks like - Harvard Business Review

Leadership for a better world in times of Crisis - Egonzehnder

Five leadership behaviours for all of us - EY