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Two ethical virtues in times of crisis

By Dr Simon Burgess

As a leader, what are the most essential qualities to possess in times of crisis? Credibility, determination, a reassuring presence, and adaptability all come to mind. After all, your team members want you to be straight with them. They want to retain a sense of purpose, and they want to be able to have confidence in you. If they don’t get clear and credible information from you, they’ll be sure to disengage and get what they want elsewhere.

Now the truth is that all of that applies at any time. Like many fundamental insights about leadership, it can be worth bearing in mind regardless of whether things are chaotic or calm. But in any case, let’s consider a couple of ethical virtues that are perhaps especially relevant in times of crisis. One of these is empathy. The other is principled integrity. Both are vital in maintaining trust during trying times.

Lead with empathy

In some ways, leading through the current coronavirus pandemic is akin to the situation faced by business and civic leaders in New York following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. While the carnage was both horrifying and bewildering, clearly those leaders weren’t responsible for any of it. Their responsibilities were entirely concerned with how best to respond. And virtually without exception, the people they led were immediately ready and willing to accept all the guidance that their leaders were able to provide. Rudy Guiliani, in particular, the mayor of New York at the time, is rightly admired for the empathic role that he performed.

Admittedly, Guiliani has never been universally admired. Moreover, his reputation has taken several serious turns for the worse since he joined the Trump administration. But without pretending that Guiliani has ever been perfect (and no leader is), let’s try to remember the kind of empathic leadership style that he showed back in 2001.

Importantly, his empathy wasn’t mere sentimentality. He didn’t cry in public or put his emotions on display. In fact, in his book Leadership, he explains that “there was no time to spend actually experiencing an emotion. There were moments of anger, fear, and sorrow, but with so much to do it was impossible to dwell on those feelings.”

But Guiliani clearly was emotionally ‘tuned in’ with those around him. He listened to the experts, and his emotional intelligence was central to the open, adaptable, and sure-footed leadership that he provided. His empathy also went hand-in-hand with his confidence that all kinds of people would rise to the occasion, and when we recognise a leader’s empathy in that form, it naturally brings out the best in us. Notwithstanding the shock and grief that were so widely shared, that empathic style actually raises morale and generates a sense of resilience, fortitude, and purpose.

Make decisions based on principled integrity

Without a doubt, something that many organisational leaders will have been quietly contemplating in recent months is the idea that one ‘should never let a good crisis go to waste.’ It’s an idea that has been most avidly promoted in recent years by Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago mayor and President Obama’s first chief of staff. And admittedly, it’s an idea that can be very tempting. When a crisis that isn’t of your own making comes along, it is often possible to exploit it. Put simply, you can use it as a pretext for something that you’ve long wanted to do (whether it be related to structure, strategy, policy or personnel) but for which you have never been able to gain support.

Crises need to be addressed squarely, decisively, and sometimes with radical action. But even in a state of crisis, our actions should be principled. They should always be based on a genuine rationale; one that can be defended with honesty and candour. If your organisation needs a restructure, argue for a restructure. If you want to reassign certain personnel, give honest reasons for your view. But if your supposed need for such changes isn’t genuinely due to the current crisis, don’t pretend that it is. Understanding the context is one thing. Exploiting it as a pretext is quite another.

Simon Burgess is a lecturer in Ethical Leadership at the University of New England Armidale.


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