Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

6 mins read

written by Matt Andrews


As we ponder how you as a leader should consider organizing your organization(s) to respond to the crisis, let’s listen to some advice from someone who has led through various crises. Below is a podcast interview with Shruti Mehrotra, who  has advised various Heads of State on effective government and statebuilding and currently helps oversee George Soros’ Economic Development Fund and Economic Advancement Program. She has worked in a variety of leadership roles on crises in contexts like Sudan and Liberia and beyond.


Here are some points from the  interview that relate to organizing yourself and your organization/team to lead through crisis.

1. Three lessons for leaders

Shruti notes that leading in these situations requires that you:

  • recognize there are no obvious, clear or easy decisions (or perfect decisions); what you need to do is get the best information you can to make  decisions (even though you know the information is imperfect),
  • need to have a process in place to discipline how you engage the information (access it, interpret it, debate it, etc.) and monitor the process (ideally from some kind of situation room), and
  • need trusted people (advisors) around you—including people with expertise in the subject matter (the technical dimensions)—to help make the decisions.

As she says: “there will  be debate, [but] as a decision maker and a decision making team, one has to go through that debate process and come up with a conclusion that is trusted and can be communicated to foster trust with the population about choices that were taken.”

An emergent idea, then: It is important to think about the information sources you  have, the process  you have for interrogating information, and the team you have doing this  work (“your trusted people” and the “technical experts”).

2. Get remote help from outsiders

Shruti discusses how technical experts were abroad in her past experiences and brought in virtually for help. These virtual experts will be even more vital now that we have social distancing. She noted that the outsiders enjoyed a distance from the crisis that was positive and useful for those ‘caught up in the weeds’: “because they weren’t in the weeds with us, they could give us perspective…” These outsiders can thus be useful in a number of different ways.

An emergent idea, then: It is important to think about the ‘bench’ of outside technical experts you may want to draw on in your crisis response. And to remember that many crises have had remote teams and contributors before; you can do it  now!

3. Balance action and rest; ‘get off the dance floor and go to the balcony’

Shruti discusses how she burnt out in the first crisis leadership position she was in. She “got sick” and “learned the hard way … about not managing one’s energies.” She notes that it is understandable that people on the ground want to work flat out to save people’s lives, but Shruti says this leads to you as a leader making mistakes and also wasn’t creating conditions for other people to perform well—the key  to leadership.

Lessons on self-care thus matter: get a reasonable amount of sleep, eat properly, set teams up with morning and evening shifts (a rhythm) where possible. She says that people who are ‘leaders’ (or supervisors) are ‘on’ 24/7 but we discussed how they must also conserve their energies. These leaders should be the decision  makers, not the doers (preserve your energy for the decisions, don’t also do the physical work). Shruti also observes that these folks should have some distance from the physical work, having a higher vantage point than many others and a bit  of space between them and the ‘battlefield’.

The discussion reminded me about crises as ‘the fog  of war’ and how important it is for commanders not to be lost in that fog—they must find a vantage point that is not ‘in the fog’. It also reminded me of a key leadership act Ron Heifetz speaks about: “getting  off the  dance floor and going  to the  balcony.” Here is a fun video of that idea.

Fred Schuneman describes ways of going  to the balcony  in this article; they are useful to consult. 

4. Different people will play different roles in some kind of snowflake structure

Shruti discusses working remotely to support people in crisis in a different location. She offered two suggestions for roles of such  people. First, she says that you can  help to ‘coach’ remotely (providing a duty of care to the people on the ground, advising them on self-care etc.). Second, outsiders working remotely can also offer ideas and perspectives from other locations or even historical references.

This topic sparked a discussion about the importance of balancing immediate responses (or emergency responses) of now and preparing for the medium to long term response. Crises like COVID-19 pose different challenges; like sprint, half  marathons, marathons, and maybe even ultra-marathons.

Shruti referenced the snowflake model here, noting that you need multiple teams operating in two bifurcated types: (1) short term emergency response teams focused on the logistics of responding fast; (2) medium and  long term analytical work on what will happen after the immediate emergency is over.

She noted that you need quite different people in these teams, and outsiders can play a very important role in the latter type of teams.

An emergent idea, then, is that you need multiple teams doing different things in a coordinated way—responding to the emergency and preparing for what’s after  the emergency. This is the key idea of the snowflake model discussed in blog post 9.

5. A central team is key; blending technical and adaptive people, built on TRUST

Shruti discusses who should be on the central team that coordinates the many other teams (see point 3 above). This  is the team at the center of your snowflake (see blog  9).

I offered Shruti the choice (from literature) of two different kinds of teams playing this coordinating role:

  1. The functional team, with members chosen because they are the best  technical experts in a set of key areas related to the crisis (in regards to COVID-19, we might have medical experts, for instance)
  2. The cross-functional team, with members who can work in various technical areas and cross those functionalities (which studies find makes the teams more dynamic and adaptive)

Shruti noted that both functional and cross-functional models sound like they could make sense, and would (wisely) not choose one over the other. Reading between the lines, my takeaway is that  you need technical functional  expertise and cross-functionality. Not one or the other. Building on her comments at various points, I  think the most important thing is that the team members are trusted.

She does say that three roles at minimum must be played either by the best  technical expert or by trusted people who you as the leader believe can bring in the best technical help:

  1. Someone who can master the technical knowledge specific to the crisis in question and can adjudicate across all those who will bring technical information to your team. This is the generally trusted expert. The  technical guru, perhaps?
  2. Someone who can bring different parts of government together where and when needed; “the person that makes the system do things.” The mobilization guru, perhaps?
  3. Someone who helps the leader think about public communication—and advise everyone else on the team and manage team communication. The communications guru, perhaps? She notes that this person is key because of what Peter Harrington said in a prior blog—crisis response is about behavioral change. In the modern age of social media and misinformation, this role is even more important than before.

An emergent idea, then, is that you need a central coordinating team situated around  the leader; comprising technical and non-technical members, insiders and outsiders, but with a technical guru, mobilization guru, and communications guru; all working on the basis of meaningful and growing trust. 

6. Parting words from Shruti

Shruti’s final couple of minutes involved positive, personal words to those facing the Covid-19 crisis:

“You’re doing a really important job…

pace yourself…even when it may feel uncomfortable to pace yourself [and you feel you could do more]…

and remember that crises can create opportunities…

so ‘in the back  of your mind’ remember that crises always  reveal  cleavages and gaps and challenges…

so think creatively and opportunistically…

because there may be opportunities to tackle long standing issues in a new way..

and as you think about recovery and rebuilding don’t just think about the ‘re’ part… don’t just rebuild, but where necessary build something new.

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 11 of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website



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