Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

written by Matt Andrews

My last blog post recounted, briefly, how Liberia changed the organizational structures it used to respond to the 2014 Ebola crisis, mid-stream through the crisis.  I wanted to tell the story primarily to demonstrate how the country ultimately adopted a flat, fast, and  flexible ‘snowflake’ like structure  (in the Incident  Management  System). Studies show that other countries and organizations adopt similar structures when facing crisis, including Korea during the MERS crisis and private corporations. In upcoming blog posts I will discuss how you might think of adopting a similar structure—especially establishing your core team, thematic focal points, and thematic teams. Even as I share these ideas, please remember that there is no one-size-fits-all crisis response organizational structure; the experience suggests that you do need to adapt your organization to the realities of your crisis  situation, but the structure that works for you will be heavily contingent on your situation.

In this post, however, I want to pause and reflect on an implicit challenge embedded in the Liberian story: how do you, as a leader, course correct when you realize you’ve made mistakes in responding to the crisis? The shift in Liberia was in ‘how’ the government was working, but you could also have shifts in ‘what’ your response looks like, ‘who’ is involved, and more. How do you, as a leader, make these changes and still maintain support and confidence of your followers?


This is a tough topic for any public leader. But it is really important. As discussed in earlier blog posts, you will make mistakes and/or realize there are things you did not know and have to adapt around. It is impossible not to make mistakes when you face the uncertainty associated with crisis, and the many questions posed by such uncertainty—What should we do? How should we do it? When? Where? With whom? For whom? For how long?  At what cost? Your mistakes will arise because decisions are based on biased and half-informed assumptions and ways of thinking common when dealing with what Michael Osterholm calls the “fog of war” (in  relating to influenza pandemics):

“The “fog of war” describes the level of ambiguity in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term captures the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability and the capability and intent of the adversary during battle. The conceptual similarities between the fog of war and the fog of pandemic preparedness are unmistakable:

  • We really don’t understand our capability … to respond.
  • We have only a very general sense of what the pandemic influenza virus is capable of doing in terms of human illness or the social, political, and economic collateral damage.
  • We can’t predict with any certainty how the next pandemic virus will behave …”

In  the Liberian case, for instance, the initial decision to adopt an organizational response rooted in hierarchy and top-down control reflects a common error in crisis decision making described by Arjen Boin and Paul ’t Hart. They note that the ‘Popular expectation’ of leaders is that “During a crisis, leaders take charge and provide clear direction to crisis-management operations.” But the actual ‘Research finding’ is that “Crisis operations are multiorganizational, transjurisdictional, polycentric response networks. They demand lateral coordination, not top-down command and control.” So, what happens when a leader finds that her ‘popular expectation’ to organize using command and control is not  working? How does she change course?

My guess is that this question is pertinent to many public officials trying to lead their people through the Covid-19 crisis. I am confident in this because you simply can’t  get it right all the time. But when you get it wrong, you need to identify your mistakes fast and know as a leader how to change course … while still retaining  trust and confidence of your followers.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did course correct during the Ebola crisis (as described in Blog post 11). And she reminded the world yesterday, March 30 2020, how important it is for governments to course correct now, when so many governments are a few weeks into their Covid-19 responses and mistakes must be mounting. She writes, in a BBC article;

Dear fellow citizens of the world,

It is clear that lapses were made in the initial response to the virus, from Asia to Europe, to the Americas. 

Cues were missed. Time was wasted. 

Information was hidden, minimised, and manipulated. Trust was broken. 

‘I made the same mistakes’

Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own, when the only solution is, and remains based in the community. 

I know this. I made all of those missteps in 2014, and so did the world’s responders. But we self-corrected, and we did it together. 

So, how do you course-correct (or self-correct, in Johnson Sirleaf’s words) while you lead your people through crisis?

Interestingly, there are a lot of observers who note how important it is to be flexible and open to change as a leader addressing crisis, but it is not easy to find good ideas on how leaders should do this. I draw and add to ideas from Tim Johnson’s discussion on moving on when leading through crisis (in his book Crisis Leadership, pages 200-203) or “Draw[ing] a line under a certain period of crisis, or at the very least signal that its moving to a new phase.”

Put  differently, these are ideas on how you can change course as a leader—note that they are all about communication, once again underscoring how important communication is for leading through crisis:

  • You could relate course changes to lessons learned ‘that you were always open to learning’: This is particularly powerful if you have communicated early and often that learning is itself a key part of your crisis response, and if you regularly communicate about lessons learned and reflect on the potential for change in future. Think of this like signaling ‘we are always learning’ and ‘things might change’ so ‘we will change if we need to’. I think this is a key to the Singaporean response to Covid-19. Consider the Prime Minister’s speech on March 12, 2020, where he signals from about minute 5 the potential changes  that might be needed if certain events transpire or certain responses do not work.
  • You could locate course changes within a balanced experience of ‘progress + adaptation’: This involves communicating that there will be progress and adaptation under your leadership, not progress or adaptation. Think of it like signaling ‘we are making progress in addressing this crisis but we are also always learning how to do things better and will adapt when we learn this.’ I find this kind of communication is vital in all my work with public sector teams dealing with complex, ambiguous challenges. The balanced message can build confidence (in your followers) that you are both capable of fostering results and confident enough to change when results are not forthcoming. 
  • You could explain the course changes symbolically, to appeal to your followers’ ‘sense of us’: The Liberian president used symbolic references to communicated about the  organizational change discussed in blog 11, especially emphasizing that the changes put Liberians in charge of their own crisis  This was a very powerful symbolic reference that helped improve follower’s acceptance of the course correction. Think of it like saying ‘this change better aligns our response to our values and the things we think matter.’
  • You should issue a public apology, where necessary: Tim Johnson notes that, “The human desire to hear the word ‘sorry’ runs deep. Hearing a crisis leader can, at times, be enough to propel the organization into a new phase of the crisis.” This is particularly important if the course correction is overdue or reveals that you and  your team have made significant mistakes (and especially if you have doubled down on those mistakes). Saying ‘sorry’ shows that you are a public servant with your followers’ best interests  in mind. It is a risky action but should be open to you if you  have been honest and human with your people from the start.
  • You could announce a change in leadership: Johnson says that, “There are fewer more impactful signals that the organization is changing direction as a change of leadership”. Changes in leadership (or in leadership structures) are common in crisis situations. They do send a powerful message that you are changing but need to be orchestrated carefully; you want to empower your people and let them know you have their backs, so don’t scapegoat people during a crisis. If you do need to change leadership, do it carefully and with  care for the people involved.
  • You could get an independent partner to lend legitimacy to the shift: Johnson notes that “It may be possible to persuade an independent body which has the legitimate moral authority to urge the world to move on.” This is useful if independent entities are respected and can vouch for your course correction, and even give examples of other places where similar course corrections occurred and helped in addressing the crisis.

Note this very important point; All of the above steps are easier to do if your leadership is based on honest and clear communication, and if your decisions have  been transparent; and if you have adopted processes that allow fast monitoring of past decisions (to contain the costs of mistakes, in terms of time, finance and collateral damage). You make it very hard to course correct when you as the leader hide information and are not open to your people, or where you do not monitor your responses to see quickly how they are working (something I will discuss in future posts).

Finally, I want to acknowledge that it is risky to course correct as a leader. But my colleagues Ron Heifetz and Marty  Linsky have taught me and many others that leadership is all about taking risks. So you must take risks—including course correction risks—if you want to lead through crisis. Just make sure you take the risks well. Marty Linsky has some important ideas on how you can ready yourself to do this, as explained in this brief video and discussed therafter.

  • First, ensure you are taking risks on behalf of something you care about (knowing clearly what Nancy Koehn calls the ‘worthy mission’ that holds you in the midst of crisis). It will be easier to take ‘course correction risk’ if you are motivated by something bigger than you.
  • Second, be careful to disappoint your followers at a rate they can absorb. Some of your followers will want you to be ‘superwoman’ or ‘superman’ and may be disappointed  if you show you are not. Some may also be disappointed about failures you are correcting. Do not hide these limits and failures—I promise it will backfire—but  be thoughtful in how you present them to your  followers (you may disappoint them, but if you use some of ideas on how to course correct you can help  them manage their disappointment).
  • Third, be careful about how course corrections distribute losses (and perceptions of losses) among your followers (and others). Remember that a key role for leadership in crisis centers on helping others manage fears of loss. When you course correct be sure to remember how the correction will lead to loss distribution, and ensure you can manage any shifts it implies.

Now, it is  your turn to reflect on your own organization:

  1. This post argues that leaders will always need to course correct when facing uncertain crises: Why does it argue this and do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Can you  think of any areas in  your organization or country’s current crisis response where ‘course correction’ is needed? What are they? How do you  know that a course correction is needed in these area?
  3. If you do not think your context  needs a course correction now, how would you  know if a course correction was needed in the future? (what information  would signal this?)
  4. The post offers a number of ideas you could adopt to communicate about a course correction: What two ideas are most interesting to  you? Why?
  5. What do you think  about the idea that leaders who are honest  and clear with  their people have an easier time course correcting?

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).

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