We are facing global leadership challenges that most of us have never experienced. Within the last week the response to COVID-19 (coronavirus) has led to closing borders, canceling major global events, sports leagues postponing all games, prominent companies moving all their employees to work from home, and a panicked shortage of toilet paper. 

Just within the last few days, the conversation has escalated dramatically as politicians, health experts, academics, faith and business leaders respond to the latest information. The coronavirus is now at a level of “pandemic” that has overwhelmed some nations.

How should leaders communicate in an unprecedented crisis? 

  • Courage

It is the job of a leader to be a “non-anxious presence” in times of crisis. We may have our own fears or concerns for vulnerable loved ones at this time, but as leaders our actions should model courage in the midst of fear, calm in the midst of chaos, and compassion for those who need comfort.

Now is not the time to appear unaffected, but nor is it appropriate to succumb to panic. Leaders must make courageous, proactive decisions to consider the most at-risk populations in our society, even at the cost of doing business. We must have the courage to practice empathy in our posture towards those who are afraid by acknowledging their fears. We must lean in, presenting ourselves as actively engaged and visible. Leaders do not hide away in crisis, they communicate courage.

  • Common Sense

Business and faith leaders do not need to become health experts, and should not position themselves this way when they communicate. 

We should be actively engaged in learning from the experts and official sources to make leadership decisions, and point people to reliable resources. 

Leverage governmental organizations like the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or trusted medical experts, such as Johns Hopkins University. When communicating on social media or email, stay away from sharing sources that are opinion-based, political, or controversial. 

Common sense is to learn from what has happened in other nations with COVID-19, and to take precautions. Leaders understand their responsibility to others and do not wait to take action. As leaders we can make organizational decisions that can help slow down the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” through avoiding public gatherings. According to the experts this will save lives, and as leaders we can help.

  • Communication
  1. Overcommunicate. As leaders we must communicate well at this time, or it could be viewed as negligence. Communicate updates regularly to your staff and stakeholders as the situation evolves. Communicate more than you think might be necessary.
  2. Let’s get Digital. If you aren’t closing your doors completely, give people the option to stay home and connect from there. Move to digital platforms for events, meetings, and communication as much as possible. 
  3. Pivot. Emphasize your online giving or purchasing opportunities. Try livestreaming or Facebook Live at predictable times throughout the week to build relationships and keep momentum with your stakeholders. If you’re the upfront leader, be visible on social media platforms to engage questions, share your teaching/expertise, gather community in online forums, and encourage people in isolation.

In the midst of this crisis, there is a lot to be hopeful for in humanity as people come together to care for their neighbours like in the social media videos of Italian neighbours join in song across balconies in quarantined areas to connect with each other. As Mr. Rogers’ television show reminded us, if we look for them, we will see people helping people everywhere in crisis or tragedy. Leaders, let’s be those people now.