Listen to our second virtual discussion on Leadership Through Crisis

Thank you to all those who attended our second session last week and for engaging with us. If you missed the session, you can listen to it here.

Governments are most important in times of public crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals—no matter how talented or self-reliant—look to their governments for help, to empower or deploy the powers and potentialities of the collective. But many people tasked with leading public organizations in times of crises struggle to know if and how to rise to the occasion. This is a particular challenge in governments that have low capability or are trying to build capability: leaders in such situations can easily feel like captains on small boats facing high winds and big waves.

BSC’s new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in crises. Each blog offers a few ideas as well as questions for reflection, thus creating a space for learning and contextual reflection.



Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

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 was on a call two days ago with a former student who is now deeply involved in his country’s Covid-19 crisis response. He said something like the following: “Our  government  is not set up to respond to this; there are multiple challenges coming at us all at once, requiring multiple new ideas from multiple places, fast. We just can’t mobilize people properly.”

This is a comment I am sure many leaders would echo right now. You look at your bureaucracy and wonder if and how it will be able to handle this crisis. It’s a little like reflecting on whether a ship built for good weather can really manage a storm.


The truth is that it probably won’t.

Typical hierarchical control mechanisms seem like they give you the coordination you need in crisis (given that we often look to centralize control during such times) but we can’t control every part of the crisis through singular hierarchies, especially when crises require engagement beyond a single organization or geographic area. Also, no new crisis conforms to the pre-arranged organizational structures we have in our organizations. These structures are typically set up to deal with specific and discrete challenges—not compound problems like we face with threats like COVID-19 (where the initial threat of virus is extremely complex and has multiple knock-on effects).

This is precisely why those who have worked in crisis and disaster management suggest using new structural mechanisms to organize their response. Decentralized decision-making and coordination mechanisms are particularly advocated for use in this kind of situation (see Dutch Leonard’s video in blog post 8, the discussion of such structures in blog post 9, and the ‘part 4’ reference to such in the interview with Shruti Mehrotra in blog post 10).

What matters is that these mechanisms allow you as the leader to identify where decisions need to be made, access information (as best as possible) and ideas to make those decisions, mobilize agents to act on and implement those decisions, and constantly monitor those actions to adapt the decisions as necessary.

In blog post 9 I emphasized that there are different kinds of such mechanisms. My  work on problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) has found Marshall Ganz’s snowflake structure as an accessible, organic mechanism to help countries think about organizing themselves to address major problems (often related to crises).

In this blog I want to reflect—very briefly, but with references for your additional reflection—on how Liberia adopted a new organizational mechanism that has elements of the snowflake (being relatively flat, fast, and flexible) to coordinate and empower decisions in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic. I summarize the  story from Liberia as well as I can in this short blog, drawing particularly on two key  articles, from Princeton  University’s amazing Innovations for Successful Societies case series by Leon Schreiber and Jennifer Widner (or SW), and the Journal Health Systems Reform by  Tolbert Nyenswah, Cyrus Engineer and David Peters (or NEP). I  am not sharing this to suggest that the Liberian Incident Management System (IMS) is the best practice for you to copy or mimic. Rather, the story shows that, Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

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 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

Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain

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).

You will notice that the first three blogs have all been about the leader—not the crisis. This is intentional, as we think you—the leader—need to be ready in  yourself for the challenge  you are  facing. You can never be fully ready, but the basics I am suggesting  can help you. I will be offering four more posts dedicated just to you preparing  yourself—rapidly—for this challenge, and then we will move to working with the  crisis  itself, and your team, and the broader set of actors you will need to engage for help.

As indicated in the third blog post, I do not believe there is a one best way approach  to do this work. I hope these ideas will help you think actively about the approach you will take.

Let’s remember the ideas shared so far (with  links to the relevant blogs):

  1. Clarify your ‘public’ motivation (it’s what will keep you strong and  focused),
  2. Be honest —but not hampered by—about self-doubt,
  3. Commit to communicate—to help people deal with fear and accept change,
  4. Identify your key people and how you will motivate and mobilize them, and
  5. Fight all tendencies to freeze, by being brave (take responsibility, nothing less), being calm (responding quickly not rashly), and being adaptive (remember there is no perfect response, so try and be  willing  to  change) 

We wonder if you agree with these ideas? Or if you have tried answering the  questions asked in relation to the ideas: they are designed to help you actively prepare yourself.

Notice the important, vital message embedded in idea 5 (above): One day in the  future, when this crisis is averted or resolved or managed into some new and acceptable equilibrium, you will not be tested on whether you did things perfectly. You  will, instead, be tested on whether you ultimately managed  to help your people get through it, albeit imperfectly. You will almost certainly have made mistakes and be able to learn lessons to do things better, but you will also know that your success in leading would not have been possible without the mistakes. So please, adopt a brave but calm try-learn-adapt mentality to your leadership. Your goal is to steer your ship through this storm in a good manner. Don’t let the  perfect be the  enemy  of that good.

Today’s blog post topic is also centered on you, but also gives you some ideas to ponder about why it is so hard to mobilize your  people, and how you might communicate with them to get them mobilized in the face of the crisis. The topic is ‘you as a leader must be smarter than your brain’ (especially in  this crisis).


Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain