Explore our new short COVID-19 Pulse Survey to set your organization and leaders up for success during this difficult time. 


March 20, 2020

Well Sagacious community, here we are. Friday night at 7:24 pm is a bit of an unorthodox time to receive a letter about leadership in crisis, but frankly, social distancing has forced me to lose track of what day it is, and when normal business hours start and stop (I hope I'm not alone on this). I also have a hunch that reading is gaining momentum as a popular Friday night activity these days (close seconds for me, puzzling and TikTok).

As the COVID-19 pandemic develops, we are entering truly uncharted waters, with no foreseeable plans to dock. Everyone’s lives and routines have been disrupted, with businesses scrambling to move employees to work remotely, and others having to lay off loyal employees, or worse, close their doors. As I/O psychologists and scientists at Viewpoint Research, we’ve been taking note of human behaviours, the psychological impact, and in particular, leadership perspectives in managing through a crisis.

Here are six key things we've been observing ...


Don't underestimate the power of empathy.

We can’t assume that everyone will experience the corollary effects of COVID-19 the same. Many in isolation right now are battling addictionmental health challengesdifficult home situations (think domestic abuse, separated families, etc.), or experiencing significant financial distress, impeding their abilities to work. Further, we know that those at the top will experience this pandemic differently than others. Research supports that coronavirus exposes income inequality, and has the power to further perpetuate the gap (During the H1N1 epidemic in the U.S. in 2009, research found that similarly, “health officials had urged social distancing … [but] spotty access to health care and the economics of part-time employment led three in 10 workers with H1N1 symptoms to continue going to work", effectively choosing wages over the health of safety of themselves and others.)

All these very real circumstances mean that more than ever, and leaders need to be able to relate to, and set policies, based on the experiences of all employees, including front-line workers. Many leaders may believe they are being empathetic, when they are really expressing kindness. Real empathy “is the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that to guide actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.” Anxiety and fear need to be met with compassion and empathy. Ask yourself, do you really know and understand another persons’ realities? 


Leaders need to take extra care and vigilance in deepening their bonds and relationships,

not only with clients and stakeholders, but also within their teams, using this as an opportunity to build emotional connections and bonds in unique and lasting ways. Make no mistake - some leaders will emerge from this crisis with stronger, more open relationships in their teams, and some will emerge worse-off.

As a leader, your response and actions during these critical weeks will become a model for the rest of the organization, and set the stage for the coming months. The same goes for client relationships - although many are focused on survival, prioritizing key relationships and dedicating time for meaningful touchpoints, will provide clarity, certainty, and confidence for clients or stakeholders.


Uncertainty and moments of crisis teach us a lot about ourselves, and others.

How we react and cope in highly stressful situations, speaks volumes about who we are. In a conversation I had earlier this week with distinguished leadership coach and entrepreneur, Phil Harkins, who worked with leaders across the globe during the 08/09 financial crisis, he shared that under stress, leaders can be exposed to the 'extremes' of their personalities, whereby they “dig in” and become further entrenched in their blindspots. We also discussed how stress has the power to illuminate things we didn't know about ourselves.

For leaders, it is not only important to exhibit self-awareness of these changes or new insights within themselves, but also to apply this emotional intelligence in their teams. For some, fear will show up as conservatism; for others, passion will show up as recklessness. More understanding on the part of leaders is necessary, and if embraced as an opportunity to develop stronger self-awareness, leaders will emerge in an even stronger position when the world eventually returns to its pre-pandemic state.


In crisis, people need certainty and confidence, and the role of leaders is not to have all the answers, but to acknowledge the crisis, and offer a vision that creates hope and inspiration.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bushs’ approval ratings shot up. The media noted that he had seemingly transformed overnight into a charismatic leader, but the reality was he hadn’t changed at all. What changed was the psychological needs of Americans, and Bush adapted to that. His speeches after the attacks, as analyzed by researchers, were more action-oriented, optimistic, and addressed adversity collectively. Further, there were fewer references to anything that looked liked passivity or ambivalence. 

Mac Van Wielingen has stated that leadership, simply defined, is the ability to positively define and illustrate a future state, adding that many good leaders “are naturally optimistic”, often able to see the way out in troubling times. This is all particularly important amidst the COVID-19 crisis, as we've already seen how a lack of clarity and communication invites misinformation, which in turn feeds into uncertainty, creating harmful hysteria and panic. 


Leaders will need to lean into the discomfort of crisis and become more vulnerable and authentic than ever before.

As we have all likely experienced by now, video conferencing opens up a world we probably haven’t seen before, on a practical level (peoples’ homes and unique working circumstances), and on a personal level (increased fear and anxiety that affects one’s ability to work). The reality is that everyone will have different challenges in the weeks ahead, and employers will need to model and encourage honesty and vulnerability in employees, but also meet these challenges with empathy (see number 1).  The benefit of increased vulnerability is that there will be an opportunity to deepen relationships, and hopefully experience some unexpected effects, like enhanced trust and creativity.


An information and social media diet may be beneficial.

If you are anything like me and many on the Viewpoint team, you’ve spent the last two weeks obsessing over every news article, constantly refreshing your apps for updates and stats, eventually descending into bouts of panic, intermixed with the reality of working a full-time job from home while caring for a "spirited" two year old. As one journalist put it, “let's just say that [my] strategic reserves of resilience, patience, and hope are already being strained.” Although important to remain current and connected to the facts, research confirms that increased exposure to media, heightens anxiety and fear. Further, it is also important to consider the source of the information you’re getting. Trust the experts and not the short social media tidbits that are flying around that cannot be properly attributed or sourced. 

Over the next few weeks, we are taking an evidence-based, deeper dive into these six observations to provide you with more detailed insights. In the meantime, should you have any burning questions, please send them to us anonymously via this link. More than ever before, we want to be there for the leaders around us, providing critical insight to prepare for tomorrow and the weeks ahead.

Kelsey Hahn, 

Managing Director, Viewpoint Research


We'll be posting questions, and our answers, every week from our Sagacious readers. Click on a question below to read the answers.


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