Public Leadership Through Crisis 2: Know your motivation, put communications and key people first

6 mins read

written by Matt Andrews

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 Heifetz. He 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.”

Other authors make similar arguments about leadership, including Katharina Balazs, from ESCP in Paris. I like a lot of her work, including the 1999 article on fostering change, titled Transforming the mind-set of the organization (Kets De Vries and Balazs, 1999, I will cite here from page 646).

The work helps us understand why people need help engaging with the change that crises force upon us; overcoming ‘forces within each individual that oppose change’ (including) “Social and psychological investments in the status quo … [and] Anxiety associated with the uncertainty of engaging in something new or becoming once again exposed to old dangers and risks..”

Balazs and her co-authors note that we all have a tendency to try and avoid change, or limit how much change we undergo—which is a key and serious mistake in times of crisis—when change is required – by many people and quickly. “In an effort to reduce … anxiety, people allow avoidance behaviors—those means by which we keep ourselves out of frightening situations—to become deeply ingrained. Furthermore, repetition compulsion—the inclination to repeat past behavior despite the suffering attached to that behavior—is an all too human tendency…”.

So, how do public leaders help their people move beyond avoiding frightening situations to actually facing those situations? Here is a short video in which Balazs discusses this challenge in the context of a crisis, which she describes as “a time to decide”….

In the video, Balazs notes that the following happen in times of crisis, making the job of any leader extremely difficult: “People go from trust to low trust, optimism to foreboding, confidence to fear, … [and] organizations [go from] a situation where rules are clear to a situation where no one knows which rules apply.’ In short: they are confronted with the ‘frightening uncertainty’ they have been trying to avoid, and everything around them seems ‘at sea’. (Remember the picture of the small boat in the violent storm?)

She notes that “Leaders are faced with distrust, fear, uncertainty, and [people who are] expecting the worst. SO, WHAT DO YOU DO IN THIS KIND OF SITUATION?

Here are three ideas for you to base your action upon in such situations, presented as usual in question format:

  1. Do you agree with her ‘first pointer’ for leaders in crisis; communication is vital? She says it is important for leaders to over communicate, and ‘be present, tangible’ and ‘even if you don’t know what exactly is going on … give as much contextual information as possible to people, to address fears and anxieties and prevent speculation and rumors’.
    • Who do you need to communicate with? (for some it will be your family, for others your immediate subordinates, for others your students, for some a nation)
    • How can you be more ‘present and tangible’ with these people? (can you hold regular family meetings, or set up a Whatsapp group to deal just with this issue, or hold regular televised updates?)
    • What kind of contextual information can  you offer them?
    • How can you present this information, to address fears and anxieties?

(Hint: consider videos below of the Singaporean Prime Minister addressing his nation in early and more advanced stages of the Covid-19 crisis; note how he explains what is happening, clearly and calmly, what government has learned and is learning, what government is doing, what is  required of them—the people—and more).

Note: we will come back to communications at various points in this series and offer a page that just provides good examples of leaders communicating during crises.

  1. Do you agree with her second ‘pointer’; that you as a leader need to know your key people, and work hard to motivate and mobilize them—based on who they are–to do ‘better, harder things’ than they have done in the past?  Balazs says: ‘Know your people, and lead them in a way they need to be led, to give them the opportunity to be their best’.
    • Do you know who your key people are right now? Make a list of these key  people, and identify why  you  consider them ‘key’ at this time?
    • How is each of your ‘key people’ motivated? How can you motivate their best? Write notes next to each person on your list, in response to these questions.

(Hint: Reflect on what Balazs says: If your key people are micromanagers, help them  make sense of their work in a detailed manner (to empower their detail orientation). Some may  be entrepreneurs, and you should give them space and inspire their creativity (empowering their problem solving nature). Some may be what  Balazs calls ‘counter-dependent’ who always disagree with you or want to prove  you wrong; challenge  them  to prove you wrong (inspiring their most determined selves)).

In sum: We believe that leaders facing crises have to start somewhere. And the starting points we suggest, and wonder if you agree with, are:

  • Ensuring you are motivated to do the public good and to work in their interest (other motivations will get in the way of your leadership in this crisis)
  • Accepting that you may have doubts, but you need to press on regardless
  • Recognizing that communication is fundamental right now—you need to accept the role of communicating in a way that addresses your people’s fears and helps to move your people to accept change they may resist; and
  • Identifying the key people you will work with, rapidly, and learning how to mobilize and motivate each one to do their best and tackle the ‘big, hard’ challenges posed by  this crisis.

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).

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 3 of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website


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