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Leadership lessons from the great pandemic of 2020

Yes, these are “unprecedented times”. But extraordinary leadership is timeless. And it starts with the smallest things.
Julian Barling
A mask hanging off of the numbers 2020

What might well be called the Great Pandemic has upended our lives in so many ways, and the act of leading is not immune. Leaders are not functioning in normal times; the people they are leading are likely facing job insecurity, financial insecurity, work overload for some but underload for others, and widespread non-work issues, such as worries about children’s socialization, education and mental health, elderly relatives’ physical health, and increased family responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, community levels of anxiety in Canada have quadrupled and depression levels doubled since the onset of the pandemic.

What does this all mean for leadership right now? It would be easy for leaders to believe that these extraordinary times must surely call for extraordinary leadership. Fortunately, it’s just the opposite: In employees’ worst moments, the smallest things that leaders do can make a meaningful difference in their lives. Early lessons from leadership during the pandemic combined with decades of research highlight the importance of four key leadership attributes: the four C’s of leadership.


Leaders’ consistency is always important to followers, but never as important as when followers are facing ambiguity, uncertainty and insecurity. What is equally important is the basis for the consistency—it emanates from leaders’ honesty, integrity, humility and transparency, and that leaders remain rooted to these principles. Honesty because they tell the truth even when the truth is difficult to bear, what Elliot Ackerman calls “Steely honesty in the face of grim facts”. Integrity and humility because they lead by example. For instance, in July, Ontario Premier Doug Ford falsely claimed migrant farmworkers were avoiding COVID-19 tests. The very next day he apologized publicly—and refused to name the person who had passed on the incorrect information, choosing instead to take responsibility himself.

At times like this, you should feel comforted knowing that employees will not hold you accountable for what you cannot do and encouraged in knowing that they will be inspired by what you did not have to do, but chose to do anyway.


During normal times, we think of inspirational leadership as “firing people up”. During times of great anxiety, the best of leadership is all about modelling a calm confidence through words and deeds. Perhaps the best historical example is Robert F. Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech in Indianapolis announcing Martin Luther King’s assassination. Delivered in a sad, monotonic voice replete with pauses, Kennedy empathized with the anger and grief of the crowd, acknowledged their rage but offered a different vision for their future. “What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness,” Kennedy said, “but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer . . . whether they be white or they be Black.” Racial rioting broke out in all major cities when news of the assassination broke, but despite fears by local police who counselled RFK not to deliver the speech because they feared racial rioting, the crowd in Indianapolis left at the end of the speech and went home.

The importance of conveying a sense of calm amidst the pandemic is exemplified by British Columbia’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Day after day, she would quietly end her briefings by reminding people that “This is our time to be kind . . . to be calm and to be safe.”


Whilst Barack Obama was still a law student at Harvard, a classmate predicted that he would one day be president of the United States. When asked why, she claimed that she had never met anyone who could take such complicated issues and distil them in ways that everyone could understand. With so many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions leading to widespread ambiguity and confusion during the pandemic, the best of leaders help employees make sense of what seems incomprehensible. They offer clarity to their employees in place of confusion. They do so by sharing the criteria that will form the basis for important future decisions.

The best leaders during troubled times are neither unrealistically optimistic nor in denial. Nor do they add to the confusion by pretending to know all the answers. Instead, the best of leadership is about acknowledging what you don’t know, and maybe cannot know.


The need to show compassion, empathy and recognition during times of great uncertainty would not come as a surprise to most leaders. Yet many leaders shy away from acting this way, believing that they just don’t have the time to do so, especially during momentous times. Leaders would do well to remember, however, that precisely because times are so tough, the challenge is not whether you can be compassionate or empathetic all the time; the challenge is whether you can do so at the right time. In what must have been one of the hardest moments of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt displayed untold compassion in a minute. She was in Washington, D.C. when a close family friend came to tell her that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had passed away in Georgia. They sat silently holding hands until Eleanor Roosevelt eventually said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Closer to home, in April, Ontario Premier Doug Ford publicly showed his gratitude for one employee whose work would normally go unacknowledged. Calling him a “rock star”, Premier Ford interrupted his daily briefing and thanked Christopher Desloges, his sign language interpreter, acknowledging Desloges’s contribution to the public health initiative.

What are the smallest things you can do to help people want to do amazing work?

A fifth “C”?

At this stage, you are probably asking: Is there not something missing? Another “C”? Competence? After all, surely competence is at the heart of successfully confronting the complexities of pandemics. And of course it is. But the lesson from the pandemic is that leaders’ competence is assumed. It’s “taken for granted”. As a result, leaders earn no capital for acting competently. Instead, what we have also learned from the pandemic is that leaders are punished if they show themselves to be incompetent.

A Fascinating Recent Research Study

Many of these lessons are highlighted in a recent study of fatality rates in U.S. states with male and female governors. It showed that states with female governors experienced vastly fewer COVID-19 deaths than those with male governors, and that these differences were magnified the earlier stay-at-home orders were issued. Followup qualitative analyses of public briefings help explain why these differences emerged: Irrespective of political affiliation, women governors expressed more empathy and confidence than did males. The implications of these findings have nothing to do with what we might think of as “gender destiny”. Instead, the challenge before all of us is whether we can be more empathetic and exude a calming confidence in our leadership interactions, and whether organizations can use this knowledge in leadership development initiatives to help prepare leaders for future challenges.

A Concluding Challenge

Warren Buffett is credited with the observation that “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” The tide went out with the onset of COVID-19, and what was revealed was just how extensively inequality pervades our societies, our organizations and everyday work. Women, members of racialized, Indigenous and minority groups, and those who face economic adversity were left to bear a disproportionate share of this global pandemic. The challenge to us as leaders is whether we now simply dream of “a return to normal”—what we now know was a less than perfect normal—or instead use this as an opportunity through our own leadership to help correct those long-standing ills, and commit to make our organizations, our communities and our world a better place.

Julian Barling

Julian Barling is the Borden Chair of Leadership and Stephen Gyimah Distinguished University Professor at Smith. He is an authority on transformational leadership and was recently named one of the 10 most influential leadership researchers in the world. He is the author of 14 books, including The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders.