Dr. Irma McClaurin

Dr. Irma McClaurin

The current COVID-19 crisis has me thinking a lot about leadership. 

A lot. 

I began writing this column a few days ago, and keep coming across tons of tweets and articles examining the leadership muscles of President Trump. This one, “A Deadly Lack of Leadership,” by Charles M. Blow, New York Times columnist, caught my attention.  Especially when he opines “America needs a leader; it has a lout.” 

What should leaders do in times of crisis? Certainly, they should not, as Blow points out in his commentary, become “obsessed with dodging blame and claiming glory.”  

What do leaders actually do in times of crisis? Do they stop to ponder and think about things, letting decisions meander until the last minute? Do think about the damage their reputation will suffer if they make the wrong decision? Or, do they take the ostrich approach and stick their head in the sand, avoiding taking a stance until their backs are against the wall? 

Leaders must, at all costs (that can include damage to the ego and professional reputation), take action. Even if leaders make the wrong call, they must do something. When a crisis emerges (natural, man-made, or origins unknown), decisive leadership is an absolute positive requirement. 

Leadership and Crisis Management

In this moment of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed what happens when leadership waffles and delays. Panic takes over. People lose hope. Rumors abound. In the absence of information, people will make things up, based on the scantest of details. 

Most leaders find themselves unprepared to manage crisis. It is one thing to encourage people to have faith, if you have to lay-off a few people, it seems a manageable moment. As long as people are not directly touched by the crisis, we find ways to ignore the reality. Hurricane Katrina should have taught us a strong moral lesson about looking away from disaster when it is not at our front door.  

I know firsthand what the consequence are when you ignore the warning signs and think it can never happen to you. Once, I worked at a national education nonprofit that laid off 200 people at one time; this action caused an emotional organizational crisis among staff who had never worked anywhere else. Leadership was unprepared for the emotional fallout and kept sending a message that “we are family.” I had to remind them that “family” can’t fire family and perhaps they needed to find new language. 

As for myself, I asked if I needed to worry about job security, since I had left a stable job with the federal government to become chief diversity officer.  Despite assurances by senior leadership, a year later, they eliminated 300 additional jobs, including mine. I should have trusted my gut that first year and jumped ship. Instead, I believed the leadership and discovered that some leaders have the ability to lie with great ease. At the end of the day, the organization’s economic viability took precedent over the emotional and professional viability of the staff who terminated. 

Stuck Leadership

Sometimes the problem in a crisis is what I call “stuck leadership.”  Those in charge simply don’t know what to do. They may not be in denial, but might as well be, since they cannot seem to make up their minds and get stuck in a state of inaction. 

Such leaders seem to forget that not making a decision is a decision. Non-action is an act of passivity and often proves to be irresponsible. Moreover, they ignore the wisdom of Einstein and his definition of insanity – keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome. 

My own experience of being a leading under fire at the beginning, middle and end of a crisis has taught me that minimizing a situation, denial that a problem exists, and delays in decision-making around taking action is not how leadership should operate. 

In a crisis, experience matters. Leadership must draw upon what they know at the moment, being able to instantaneously consider long-term implications, dig deep into the reservoir of knowledge they’ve acquired, do a mental calculus that weighs pros and cons, and take action. 

©2020 McClaurin Solutions

Irma McClaurin(http://irmamcclaurin.com)  is the Culture and Education Editor at Insight News. An activist anthropologist and award-winning writer, she also speaks and conducts workshops on a range of topics that include social and educational inequality; diversity, equity and inclusiveness; and the state of Black women in America. 

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