Coronavirus and behaviour: Why leaders need better ‘risk communication’

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

Last week I wrote a post on how the Coronavirus pandemic, like Ebola, needs to be understood as a complex adaptive problem which requires mass learning to solve. In this post I want to focus in on one area of that learning – the behaviour change required to stop transmission, and the leadership and risk communication methods that are needed to make this happen. Coronavirus is both a biological and social phenomenon, and leaders neglect the social dimensions at their peril.

Let’s first establish how behaviour change relates to the epidemic. A couple of weeks ago a viral article called for radical action by authorities to replicate the Wuhan lockdown, in order to save lives and prevent the overload of the health system seen in Italy. A graphic was presented (below) which showed the effect of the lockdown on ‘true’ cases (the grey bars). It then took about two weeks for the effect of the lockdown to be visible in official cases (gold bars). As soon as a lockdown started, new cases plummeted. This is what underlies the lockdown policy in most countries – the only way to stop transmission is if people stay at home. Behaviour change, whether enforced or voluntary, directly translates into lives saved.

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The problem is, many many people in countries with a serious number of cases are not complying with guidance about social distancing, home-isolation and closures of business and various establishments. A public and private tug-of-war is raging between those who take this epidemic extremely seriously and are urging others to observe social distancing and stay at home, and those who see over-reaction and hysteria or don’t want to change their routines. This is going to lead directly to deaths. So what is happening here? Why are leaders’ entreaties being ignored? And should the authorities simply force everyone to stay at home?

I worked in the team that coordinated messaging and communications for the Liberian’s Ebola response. This branch of the response was known as ‘social mobilisation’, working to build citizen understanding and consent, and to change key behaviours to stem the epidemic. What we learned was later documented by Princeton, and has relevance today.

It is well documented that in the early stages of Ebola, the widespread belief that Ebola was not real perpetuated behaviours (like dressing highly contagious dead bodies for traditional funeral) which helped spread the disease. People were not reporting cases, and avoided Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs). Although the affected countries lacked beds, ETUs, burial teams, protective gear, it was people’s behaviour which was paramount in the spread. This relationship between the hard infrastructure of beds, staff, equipment, quarantine, ambulances etc., and the ‘soft’ infrastructure of social networks, messaging and norms is extremely important to remember for Coronavirus too. The hard infrastructure matters hugely: when cases mount, the number of beds, healthy medical personnel and equipment will be crucial. But it is the soft infrastructure that determines how many cases develop and therefore the burden on the hard infrastructure – i.e. the shape of the transmission curve.

Continue reading Coronavirus and behaviour: Why leaders need better ‘risk communication’

Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

written by Matt Andrews

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).

In my last post, I argued that you should prepare to work differently. In this blog  I will offer ideas on doing that. I am informed by my BSC team’s work with countries employing PDIA (problem driven iterative adaptation) in the face of problems (some crises) and the work of people like Dutch Leonard (whose video was included in the last post).


Let me start with an observation of the organizing structures typical to public organizations (school systems, local governments, national departments, and more). Most of these organizations tend to be bureaucratic hierarchies; with a defined mission determined (or managed) by the people at the top, and pursued through formal processes by people in highly specified jobs. Using words from the last blog, the authorization mechanisms, acceptance requirements, ability needs, and mobilization mechanisms are all set in place. My guess is your organization looks a little like this?

But there are variations of such structure:

  • Some bureaucracies are stand-alone structures like the Figure 1 below. A single school might be an example of this. The  principal sits at the top and everything is led by her/him.
  • Other organizations are bigger hierarchies with multiple embedded hierarchies, as in Figure 2 below. A school district might be an example. The District commissioner leads a system in which other people lead schools B, C, and D. The leadership and coordination tasks are now split across a group.
  • Other organizations are distributed hierarchies (as in diagram 3 below). A state or national government is an example. One hierarchy (A) is the education department. Another (B) is the health, another (C) is the public works department, etc. In these systems, leadership again is about a group.

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Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

Public Leadership Through Crisis 8: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently

written by Matt Andrews

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).

I have spent 7 posts discussing leadership challenges in crisis for the leader herself or himself; what the individual needs to get ready and steady to help people through crises. In this post I am going to start pivoting to thinking about your organizational capability.

I am hoping that a wide group of people find these blogs useful, but I am writing with a particular group in mind: those responsible for mobilizing a public response (of any kind, at a school, in a sector, in a town, or a nation) in low  capability settings (especially the developing world) where there has often  been a tendency to look to outsiders for help in crises. The advice I offer is not perfect in any way, and will not always travel across contexts, and I do encourage  you to consider other resources and ideas when acting (see our seventh post for ideas), but I—and my team—are offering what we can, given our capabilities, and I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here (I think these are good  ideas and they can be helpful, even if more work could make them better—remember this is a key to remember from post 3).

I have been in touch with a number of leaders faced with the COVID-19 pandemic in the last week or so, and I sense real concern that their organizations and systems do not have the capabilities needed to weather the current storm. In this blog I  want  to agree, but also encourage you: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently, with what you have.


So, you are asking if you have the capability to address this crisis. The answer from me is that you do not. No one does.  But you probably have more latent capability than you know, and can deal with the crisis better than you think if you mobilize it in new ways. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 8: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently

Seeing Pandemics as Complex Adaptive Problems

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

As the world grapples with the first truly global pandemic, a crucial struggle is emerging between different ways of seeing the current coronavirus outbreak. On the one hand, it is a virus that medical science can tell us how to combat. On the other hand, it is a complex social challenge to which human behaviour and norms are the key. In truth it is both, but if we fail to understand this, and understand that it requires adaptive learning to overcome, far too many will die.

Five years ago, I worked alongside the late statistician and epidemiologist Hans Rosling in Liberia on the Ebola epidemic sweeping the country and its neighbours. I had gone back to Liberia having previously spent three years in the country with the Africa Governance Initiative, working in the office of President Sirleaf. Like many, including Rosling, I came out of a sense of duty. Looking back on that experience, it holds powerful lessons for how we respond to coronavirus today.

Rosling said something memorable in 2014, that ‘Ebola is both a biological and a social phenomenon’. In other words, beating it was as much about behaviour as beds, as much about trust as treatment. The huge spike of cases in Liberia – which at one point threatened to collapse the country – peaked around November 2014. Privately, many of the foreign epidemiological experts in Liberia admitted it is unlikely that the (belated) influx of beds, logistics, money and aid workers explains the decline in new cases around the country after that.

So what happened? It is actually really useful to look at what happened as an exercise in mass problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). The headline problem was abundantly clear – an out of control epidemic with a mortality rate of over 50%. And the country lacked the capabilities to handle this epidemic. What followed was a mass learning process, encompassing many actors. Starting with the authorities: they had to learn how to set up an Incident Management System, the name for a completely new institution dedicated to the eradication of the outbreak, to avoid overloading the Health Ministry and other existing institutions. They had to learn to set up emergency response phone numbers, special burial teams, to build special Ebola treatment Units (ETUs), set up and run testing labs, mobilise mass logistics to distribute these resources, all without abandoning those in need of other healthcare.

At the same time, the stampede of outside organisations wishing to help had to learn too – to take their ‘expertise’ with public health, epidemics, logistics and communications and translate that to the local context. Some organisations – like the American CDC who came with ears and eyes open – proved very good at that. Others like the WHO proved very slow indeed. The difference was the willingness to learn. Continue reading Seeing Pandemics as Complex Adaptive Problems

Public Leadership Through Crisis 7: Additional resources for you

written by Matt Andrews

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).

In today’s post I will be locating information, examples, and more to assist those leading through crisis. Please send suggestions and additions. I am sure it will be a constantly changing post.


Are you looking for ideas on  leadership in this storm?

Leading through crisis, and Covid-19 in particular

This online interview with my colleague Dutch Leonard on leading through crisis is fantastic.

This online page at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies at  Stanford is very good.

This is a page with short ideas on managing the current crisis from a selection of colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This post by Tomas Pueyo on Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance is excellent and offers good ideas on actual responses based on what other countries are doing.

This pdf on Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis edited by Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro is also useful.

This post on ELGL by Maggie Jones on Finding Place in COVID-19 and learning about ourselves and each other.

This is a good effort to get lessons from CEOs in the Asia-Pacific region about dealing with coronavirus.

Personal care for yourself and those close to you (family or your team)

This is a great essay by Danny Kaufmann at Brookings, on Caremongering in the time of Coronavrius: Random Acts of Kindness and Online Enrichment.

How to Lead and communicate virtually

A comment on my previous post about communication asked if we had anything to  say about communicating—and  leading—virtually. A great and important topic, especially now. If  you and your team are remote, how do you communicate?

Here are some sources offered by friends and colleagues:

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 7: Additional resources for you

Public Leadership Through Crisis 6: Know your role, Empower others to play their roles and Stay in your lane.

written by Matt Andrews

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).

So far this series has focused on ideas to equip the individual to lead through crisis. This is because real people struggle during crises and need to ready and steady themselves to take leadership. Before you start trying to lead others, you need to have some basics in place to prepare yourself, and that’s what we have focused  on.

We will soon move beyond talking about you, and offer ideas on mobilizing  your organization(s) to tackle the crisis. But remember that self-leadership is crucial when you are leading through crises, and come back to some of these ‘basics to remember’ if needed.

For this post, however, I want you to still think about yourself, and another ‘basic to remember’ as you lead in this crisis: Know your role. Empower others to play their roles. Stay in your lane. 


You’re not alone in this crisis. But how do you think of everyone’s roles?

The message is simple: your personal leadership is crucial right now, but insufficient in the face of crisis (and at most times, in fact). You must work with others who also provide leadership. Put differently, borrowing  from the NPLI; ‘you  are it’ but ‘others are it, too’. So, you must identify what your role is, find others to play other roles, and stay in your lane to let them play those roles. I know this may be difficult for many, but it is imperative.

As you reflect on this idea, remember how I suggest we think about leading through crisis (from the first blog post), drawing on David Foster Wallace’s view that “leaders 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.”

Now, consider this: “Where are you and who are the people you are ‘helping overcome’?” You could be in a family (where you are helping your kids through crisis), or the front desk at a hospital (where you are helping a few staff members), or an entire hospital (where you are helping hundreds of staff members and thousands of patients), or a community, or a nation.

Now, consider that there are other people in every place you find yourself leading. Some are in positions of authority above you, some are under your authority, others are operating at your side, inside or outside your personal sphere of influence.

I find that the kind of leadership required to help people through crisis requires contributions from many of these people, playing different roles and allowing each other to play their role as effectively as possible. 

I first saw this when conducting research on leadership in 12 cases where major achievements followed crisis-like periods (mostly related to conflict). I was interested in who had led these achievements, and interviewed people who had been involved to better understand this. I expected to hear the names of one or two prominent individuals in each case, but was surprised when I heard an average of over 7 names in each case. It was the first time that I realized leadership is not about one person on her or his own.

Following up with the interviewees, I asked why each person identified specific individuals as a ‘leader’. This led to the identification of a specific set of roles I now see played in all important change processes (like the kind required when you lead through crises). These roles are played by individuals working together in what I call multi-agent leadership engagements. The roles include:

    • Authorizers,
    • Motivators,
    • Conveners,
    • Connectors,
    • Problem identifiers,
    • Idea generators,
    • Encouragers (or empowerers),
    • Resource people, and
    • Implementers.

Interestingly, my research suggests that leaders who really help their people ‘do better, harder things’ seldom play more than three roles. Even the people we sometimes call ‘champions’ (or, perhaps, supervisors or Tzars give responsibility for overseeing crises responses) hold to this rule-of-thumb. When most effective, I see these champions or supervisors authorizing, convening, and motivating to facilitate effective decision making and communication, but requiring and empowering others to play the other roles.

If you are interested to learn more, see research on the topic here and here and watch this video.

I think this kind of leadership matters so much when facing crises and other stressful challenges because multiple agents leading together helps to spread decision-making risk, fosters creativity, and starves off burn out (among  other things). And this kind of leadership gives more agents the chance to exercise their leadership muscle and be part of helping people through crisis.

This is why you should consider, very seriously, identifying what roles you plan to play and letting others play their roles. Which brings me to key questions you might want to reflect on:

  1. Do you agree that there are many roles to play in leading through crisis?
    • How would you define your role? (use your own words)
    • If you are forced to choose just three roles you will play in this list, which would they be? (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer
  2. Do you agree that many people in your context are available to play their role with you?
    • Think of who you would look to play roles with you?
    • Write names down next to the following roles, so you have a good idea of who you have playing what roles in your multi-agent engagement: (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer.

For multi-agent leadership to work, you and other leaders need to identify your role and stick to it, letting others play their roles too. Leonard Marcus from NPLI calls this ‘staying in your lane’ (in describing ‘swarm leadership’ which is a great description of how multi-agent leadership works). He notes that a key to successful leadership in the face of crises is to “Stay in your lanes, do your job, and help others to succeed in theirs. [always ask ] How can I make you a success?”

‘Staying in your lane’ proves to be difficult in many crisis situations, however, especially for those leaders playing champion or supervisory roles. In this video (make sure English subtitles are on and ‘listen’ to his comments in referring to disaster response experiences) Norwegian psychiatrist Lars Weisaeth finds that  champions (or supervisors) often interfere with others and take on  too many roles. He comments that [for leaders] “Forcing yourself to restrain from doing things yourself [or playing all the roles] requires a lot of self-control.” This is especially the case when the supervisor feels like she or he is not doing enough, and he or she gives in to “The urge  to act  [and take over all the roles].” Unfortunately this can lead to you ‘spreading  yourself too thin’, ‘overpromising’ and disempowering others to ‘do better, harder things’ themselves.

Be careful not to fall into this trap, by staying in your lane. To help you reflect on this, consider the following  questions:

  1. What will cause you to want to ‘leave your lane’ and take others’ roles from them?
  2. What disciplines can you adopt to ensure you have enough self-control to stay in your lane?

For some inspiration, watch this video by Gregory Ciottone, on crisis leadership in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. It is nearly twenty minutes long, but very much worth watching—especially if you are currently feeling overwhelmed by crisis. At moment 2:02, Ciottone says he was asking “what will my role be here”. One of our key questions in  this blog. He then refers to being  ‘a little piece in a big machine’ (around 8:04) which you can only say if you realize that others are working alongside you (playing other roles).

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 7of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website


Public Leadership Through Crisis 5: Good communication ideas you might consider

written by Matt Andrews

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).

In my last blog I noted that communication is a key leadership act in crisis. (and you must commit to communicate —to help people deal with fear and accept change).

It is good to remember that every crisis poses different communication challenges, so I don’t think there are one-best-way solutions to doing communication right in the face of crisis. But I do think there are some good communication ideas you might consider whenever you are engaging with others during this difficult time.


How do you communicate to your people when the wind and waves are high?

Let me offer some ideas that I personally think can be useful. Before doing so, however, let me encourage you to open yourself to learning about communications in crisis. There are a number of articles out there offering advice on communicating in crisis, like this one and this one and this one. I advise you to read as many articles as possible and weigh up all the different points of view  out there, to see where the ‘good ideas’ are (those that seem to be offered by multiple authors, with examples, and that you think you could act on in your context). Additionally, and particularly regarding the COVID-19 crisis, you may want to  reference the excellent resource on communicating during health crises (by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

My first good communication idea is ‘Be calm’. Your main job in crisis is to lead your people through a stressful time; they will only follow if they think you are credible and know what you are doing. The best way to foster this credibility is  to stay calm and collected. I have encountered much advice on how to be calm in communication, and here are a few—briefly: (i) be as prepared as you can and keep things simple—make sure you have a basic narrative that you will stick to (it is your anchor); (ii) be calm in your demeanor, sure of what you are communicating (adopt a simple standing or seated pose, for instance, and do not try to be  charismatic here!); (iii) do not be threatened by any questions or challenges, but  rather listen and take notes (you will  get many  chances  to communicate and can  easily  get  back to people if you don’t have answers now); (iv) tell the truth; anything else will generate stress (now or later, for you and the people you are communicating with). Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 5: Good communication ideas you might consider