Responsible leadership in the time of Corona Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
USB’s Prof Mias de Klerk provides practical guidelines for responsible leadership during the time of COVID-19.

The world is in a crisis as the Coronavirus is creating havoc in all spheres of our existence. There is no one who can escape this disruption and we all have to deal with it in various aspects of our lives. This unexpected pandemic does not only test our physical strength health, but also our mental strength as individuals and leaders. In the time of COVID-19 we are challenged how we choose to take up our leadership role and the extent to which respond to it with responsibility.

…everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower. In dealing with this emergency, we must follow the leadership of others on many aspects.

Leadership does not only refer to someone in a formally appointed position. Rather, everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower. In dealing with this emergency, we must follow the leadership of others on many aspects. Yet, on many other aspects, everyone must provide exemplary leadership to others, perhaps at home, at work, or even when we are at the grocery shop. We all have leadership roles that we all can fulfil or neglect, take up or deny. The word ‘responsible’ originated from Latin, meaning to be answerable to another and to be accountable for one’s actions. With responsibility comes a liability, a liability to be held responsible and accountable for what we do, how we do it and to honour an obligation to be reliable and trustworthy. This is a huge and demanding task, even in the best of circumstances.

With responsibility comes a liability, a liability to be held responsible and accountable for what we do, how we do it and to honour an obligation to be reliable and trustworthy.

Without repeating the detailed context of the COVID-19 crisis, which is well articulated and explicated in formal and social media, it is necessary to reflect on some of its psychological consequences. The outbreak of COVID-19 renders projected disaster to economic for many economies, organisations and communities as countries and industries lockdown. It demands self and social isolation as a result of the high risks of contagion and health problems, even death. These dynamics transmute into panic, fear and apprehension as business and individuals face potential illness and mortality, a loss of income and even bankruptcy. Panic and fear augment individuals’ anxiety, stirring anger and fears about the virus and certain populations. Uncertainty blossoms as the crisis escalate without a clear solution in the foreseeable future. A vicious circle of fear, anxiety and uncertainty develops that must be broken. Although there is no magic solution to COVID-19, responsible leadership and acting responsibly can go a long way in breaking the vicious circle and helping individuals to deal with it.

Although there is no magic solution to COVID-19, responsible leadership and acting responsibly can go a long way in breaking the vicious circle and helping individuals to deal with it.

A few practical guidelines for responsible leadership that apply to all of us during the time of Corona:


Serve and unite

During the crisis of Corona, everyone needs to realise that this is not to a time for selfish benefit. Rather, it is a time of selflessness, to put one’s own desires and aspirations on the back burner, to serve, and to be useful to others. Find others who are in need and help them deal with their respective difficulties. It is now the time to unite with people across the divides of organisations, communities and countries. Blaming others and projection of one’s anger or anxiety to others who became infected elsewhere and are placing you now at risk are of no use. We are all in this together, and only together will we conquer it and move beyond this emergency to better times.

Which leads to the next point:

Accept and go forth

There is no use to sulk about the situation that we are in or projecting blame for its happening. It happened and it is what it is. We cannot change the lockdown, but we can change how we act and behave in it. Although the virus and its nature are not in our control, it is in our control how we react to it. As Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who was incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps realised: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any give set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We cannot wish away the virus or the disruption that ensues, but we have a choice of action and reaction to it. However, we always have a choice of how we act and react to the situation and its challenges. Trying to circumvent the lockdown restrictions with rationalisation or intellectualisation, trying to find and exploit loopholes in the governments instructions are serving nobody. It’s been a long time since the serenity prayer was as applicable as it is now: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Stop denying your responsibility to live and act safely and accept the proscribed guidelines provided by leadership.

Act decisively, but with wisdom

Apart from accepting what one cannot change, there are things that one can change. In these cases, COVID-19 require us to act decisively, but with wisdom. Do not waste time in making the right decision to change what you can for your organisation, team, or community. All of us will have to make difficult decisions, whether it is about ourselves or others. This is even more important for those in formal positions of authority. Responsible leaders act decisively in doing what is right to guide people and prevent further infections, but with wisdom. One of my students always quote H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” The situation we are facing are too complex for simple solutions; think carefully and act wisely in all you do.

Demonstrate compassion

Now is the time to demonstrate compassion for others, acknowledging and deeply feeling individuals’ fears, anxieties and dire realities, with a desire to alleviate their suffering. Compassion goes beyond cognitive knowledge about the economic impact of the lockdown and its realities. As important it is to inform people how to avoid contagion and to provide appropriate sanitisers and protective equipment, we have to go beyond this to provide emotional support. Compassion is about connecting with another person, knowing the person is suffering and identifying with the suffering. People are scared about the impact of the health risks of the virus, anxious about being able to pay the bills, uncertain as to what the future holds in for them. This is not time for platitudes, clichés of superficial messages of hope. When individuals realise their leaders and others who they hold in high regard understand and have empathy for their suffering, they are much more likely to respond constructively in how they deal with the situation.

Have the courage and strength to be vulnerable

Vulnerability stands opposed to fantasies of being the strong leader who is in absolute control and has all the answers. Responsibility requires leaders to have to courage to be vulnerable in dealing with the many dilemmas that Corona and the lockdown are demanding. We have seen enough evidence in the last month to know that we don’t know, and things can change daily. We can react to this situation by panicking, or being a beacon of strength and calmness. One has to acknowledge one’s own uncertainties and anxieties, yet provide and create hope rather than promoting despair. The courage to be vulnerable assist one to accept accountability for one’s actions and failures, to accept the fate of one’s communities and institutions, and to assist them through the crisis. It is only when we have the courage to be vulnerable that we have to inner strength to lead with calmness to reduce and contain panic.

Provide hope, but realistically

Napoleon has been credited to have said, “Leaders are dealers in hope.” We all look up to our leadership figures as symbols of hope and comfort. Indeed, we even project messianic expectations onto them to rescue us from the suffering that we face. Providing hope does not come from superficial statements of hope, for instance, “Everything will be OK”, or “There are many opportunities to gain from this crisis”. Hope comes from acknowledging and facing the problems head-on. This does not require one to become a superhuman being, but rather to become person who Frankl calls “homo patiens” – the suffering person who knows how to mould his or her sufferings and those of others into an achievement. Responsible people in the time of Corona are beacons of hope, individuals who inspire others in the way they walk their talk as role models.

A period of difficulty that challenges our mental and physical strengths is a challenge of character. Crisis does not build character but exposes it. The only question is, “What kind of character will each of us demonstrate during this time of crisis?”

The sort of leader and person one will become during this crisis is the result of an inner decision, not the result of the situation. Let this crisis be the epiphany of being responsible and demonstrating responsible leadership. When next generations reflect back on the time of Corona and those involved, let the words of Winston Churchill come to mind: “Never was so much owed, by so many,  for being such responsible individuals” (revised by the author).

 Prof Mias de Klerk is Head of Research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).





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