Lead Us Through This Mess: COVID-19 Leadership Truths

In crisis, organizations can travel one of two routes.

Route 1 heads toward and over the cliff, into powerlessness, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

Route 2, travels through mountains passes, navigating trails alongside jagged mountains, using determination, resiliency and engagement.

The difference: leadership.

What do employees need and require from leaders in this global pandemic: leadership that can help us survive and ultimately thrive.  

This 5th part of the “What Employees Really Want for Christmas” https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/what-employees-really-want-for-christmas/series details what employees ask for from leaders.

In writing this I’m reminded of Luis Urzua who used his calm wit and leadership skills to lead 33 Chilean miners pinned a half-mile underground by 700,000 tons of rock, through 69 harrowing days until rescue.1

In crisis, leaders step to the plate.

Crisis plan

What’s our plan? Do we have a plan?

It’s easy to imagine Urzua sitting in the dark with his miners and saying, “here’s how we’re going to get through this.” A plan gives employees something to hold on to. And yet, when asked in a recent Gallup survey, “has your employer communicated a clear plan of action?” fewer than four out of ten U.S. employees checked the strongly agree box.

The massive scale, overwhelming speed and sheer unpredictability that COVID-19 brings into our lives tempts many managers to shoot from the hip, employees want leaders who will do more than stumble through what needs doing to keep employees safe and the organization functioning.

For COVID-19, this starts with safety protocols and may end without them. Leaders make it clear that employees should work when healthy and take care of themselves when sick. Leaders ensure that employees wear masks, maintain physical distance, and sanitize the working areas.  

The leader/navigator, him/herself

Employees want a leader, a steady hand at the helm, who they can trust to navigate their ship through the storm.  A leader who thinks on his feet, remaining calm despite the fraught situation, reminiscent of the inspirational words in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”  

In COVID-19, the facts evolve, changing hourly. Leaders sift through everything coming at them and us and communicate “here’s what’s important this week” and “here’s where we are going and why.”

Calm, smart leadership instills faith in employees, giving them the confidence that they need to unlock their own sense of competency and resilience.

Path forward

The pandemic overwhelms with uncertainty, giving rise to powerlessness, fear, and fatigue. Crisis planning that communicates “here’s how our team can rally; here’s our path forward” addresses that. Leaders set clear goals for their employee team, then act to achieve those goals. Leaders communicate by what they do as well as what they say.

“Return to normal” doesn’t compute for employees. It underestimates what is and has happened. COVID-19 threw at us than “a normal emergency” in which temporary moves such as “working from home” suffice. Leaders need to create new business practices, to adopt new tools and develop alternative methods.  

Trust and the no BS rule

Employees want credible information and thought-through plans from leaders they can trust. If leaders downplay the risks involved in returning to the workplace or sugarcoat the facts, employees lose confidence.

Leaders need to communicate bad news concerning painful changes and the true state of their organization as well as optimism. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


Leaders keep their employees informed and respond to questions. They’re neither a brick nor a blank wall, nor do they defer to the media for safety instructions but instead send out daily updates so employees aren’t left in the dark.  

Leaders provide clear guidance as in the “6-20-100” statement: stand six feet away to maintain a safe physical distance, take 20 seconds for good hand washing, consider a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit the signal to stay home.


Transparency builds trust.

In the past, when changes loomed in organizations, senior management called mid-level managers into closed-door meetings and gave them information about what was coming so they knew what to expect. The mid-levels returned their desks and work stations and got right back to work.

We can’t afford that now. If you’re a mid-level manager, you’re the leader of your work group. You need to hold a team meeting of your own as soon as senior management briefs you and let your team learn what’s projected. If you’re a senior manager, give all of your employees regular “here’s what the future holds” updates.


Leaders provide a role model for employees in the areas that matter–integrity, professionalism, teamwork, respect, fairness and dependability. Employees’ scrutiny of their leader magnifies during a crisis.


We can’t afford leaders focused on a fat benefits package for themselves or their top tier peers while their employees lose their jobs or their organizations bankrupt.

Leaders inspire confidence when they have their employees’ best interests at heart and show appreciation for the challenges their employees face. The millions of school-age children kept home from school create unprecedented stress for employees.  Leaders need to say and mean “we know what you’re going through.” (For more on this, see https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/what-employees-want-for-christmas-2020-someone-who-gets-it-part-3-of-a-series/12/24/20).

Employees need technology, resources and training to competently do their jobs under new working conditions and may need assistance to cope with the trauma COVID-19 brought.


Employees want to be part of the solution, not shut out. Fluid situations mean things change from one minute to the next and this can tempt leaders to move fast and make decisions without seeking input.

But as Philip Jennings, former General Secretary of UNI Global Union, says, “Those who have come through this crisis best have listened to their workers, have had dialogues with their labour movements and civil society, respected them and relied on them for advice.”

Bring everyone to the table. Involve your stakeholders when making operational decisions, or at least when deciding how to implement them.

Our team

We need the feeling and reality of support we from being part of a team. Team bonds can grow stronger during crisis and Urzua clearly did this for the 33 Chilean miners. Leaders call for employees to support each other. Queen Elizabeth II recently asked all Britons to unify with resolve and fellowship with these words, “The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”

What will you give your employees this holiday season? How about leadership?


If you enjoyed this post, please look for part 1 “communication & connection”https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/what-employees-really-want-for-christmas/ (12/21); part 2 “flexibility” https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/flexibility-what-employees-want-need-for-christmas-2020-part-2/, part 3 “empathy”https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/what-employees-want-for-christmas-2020-someone-who-gets-it-part-3-of-a-series/ (12/24); “recognitionhttps://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/12/a-christmas-new-years-surprise/ (12/28) and “professional development” (12/31/20). And, as always, I love receiving your comments and your questions in https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/.


photo credit: Cheryl Bostrom, https://watchingnatureseeinglife.wordpress.com/

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10. www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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3 thoughts on “Lead Us Through This Mess: COVID-19 Leadership Truths

  1. The “trust and no BS rule” rang true for me! This is a great account of practical actions and self questions on what we are doing about leadership and communicating plans forward. Thank for this as we move toward a new year.

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