Leadership in the Next Phase of COVID-19 (2020)

Margot Schumacher

Leadership in the Next Phase of COVID-19

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Around the world, plans are being launched to work with an app to fight COVID-19. It makes sense: the virus can be contained more easily and countries can be released from their lockdowns sooner. Experiences in China are promising.  However, while some are enthusiastic, others are worried about their privacy. 


Impressive change management and leadership will be necessary to convince people to adjust their behaviour, to eventually conquer the virus and revive the economy.


Change management has been applied in companies and organisations for years and business schools have long taught on the subject. Heifetz, senior lecturer in public leadership at Harvard, speaks about the difference between technical and adaptive change. When the problem and the solution are clear, and there is an authority that decides, it is a technical change. A good example is a bacterial infection - through blood work, the type of bacteria can be determined andthe doctor can prescribe the right antibiotics. 


When dealing with adaptive change, the problem and the solution are less clear. Continuous cycles of experimenting and learning are necessary to find the right solution. With Covid-19,  many stakeholders with different views are involved: optimizing IC capacity, stimulating solidarity amongst people, protecting the weak in society, maintaining employment as much as possible. The list is endless, and the solution is not simple. How to control the virus, without letting the economy collapse? It is clear that fighting Covid-19 is a major adaptive challenge.


In leadership, it is important to communicate the direction clearly, and to motivate and inspire people to follow the vision. It is interesting to watch leaders in different countries following different approaches. Boris Johnson (UK) focused mostly on the new rules with an emphasis on enforcement measures. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) showed a lot of empathy with the effects on people’s lives and focused on the meaning and purpose (saving lives), rather than on the measures. She also took a lot of time for questions. 


The next phase of this crisis is to allow the economy to recover. The 1.5 or 2-meter society is speculated on, as well as the introduction of (mandatory) apps. There is less attention given to the feelings of people about the app, or how to motivate people to use it. Do politicians think that rational arguments will convince people? 


It is important to understand the deeper motivations for change. Often, the problem is not the change itself, but what people are losing. Everyone wants to fight Covid-19 and revive the economy, but are they willing to make the sacrifices? There is no ‘one size fits all’. Where some people are persuaded by arguments, others want to see positive results first and others are waiting to see what their family and friends decide.


What adaptive leadership is needed to get the desired change in behaviour? 

  • Experts and stakeholders need to be brought together to  decide on a common policy and plan. Not only the medical world can decide, financial experts, economists, experts in people’s behaviour and many others need to jointly strategize. This group needs be empowered by the government to experiment, reflect and learn, and adjust their course. Quick compromises are needed to serve the overarching goals. 
  • Empathy is very important in communications, understanding the impact on society and motivating people by giving purpose and meaning to the new measures. People need to be inspired to cooperate. Take the people by the hand and guide them through the process, and communicate frequently and openly. This way we will get a ‘learning government and society’ which jointly and with conviction fight COVID-19. 


Margot Schumacher MBA, MSc is an Adjunct Professor in Leadership at TIAS Business School and a senior associate at the Kets de Vries Institute.


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Leadership in the Next Phase of COVID-19, 2020

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