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Exhibiting Leadership … and symptoms of COVID-19

March 30, 2020
Leadership in a crisis image


I called the department together … and calmly explained what had happened to me, how it was fortunate that our social distancing already meant that few were immediately at risk from having worked with me and then gave clear directives for what they should do in the event that they began to have symptoms.

“Peter,” MBA Student and local doctor

I start this blog on MBA student leadership during the pandemic of COVID-19 with one of their stories.[1] This particular student, whom I will call Peter, is a doctor in one of our local healthcare systems.

Peter’s department does not specialize in infectious diseases like COVID-19. Even so, he pointed out that employees in most healthcare system departments have “a lot of anxiety … regarding the risks of COVID-19 and measures that would be needed both to care for patients and contribute to social distancing.” His group is no exception. At this moment in history, our health care providers are on the front lines. They are putting their own health at risk for the sake of others, and this is, of course, a major stressor to themselves and their families.

It is not hard to imagine, therefore, how other professionals in his department must have felt when Peter told them that he tested positive for the virus himself. The challenge of leading his team skyrocketed, not only because their anxiety was exacerbated, but also because Peter had to manage the anxiety he felt, as well. After learning that he tested positive, Peter took some time to reflect on how he might exhibit leadership in this situation.

In his words:

I recognized that calming everyone’s concerns were made both easier and more difficult by my own encounter with the disease. It both raised the immediacy of everyone’s concerns and at the same time gave me the authority to reassure them that it would be OK. On the morning following my diagnosis, I called the department together (by WebEx) and calmly explained what had happened to me, how it was fortunate that our social distancing already meant that few were immediately at risk from having worked with me and then gave clear directives for what they should do in the event that they began to have symptoms. Some did express concern but I think generally the team felt reassured and supported.

We can view this story in at least two ways. One way to view this story is to think, “Well yes, of course, that is what a leader should do in a situation like this.” The operative word in that sentence, however, is “should.” Peter could have panicked or wallowed in self-pity. He could have kept the information from the other employees in his department. He could have held the meeting without taking time to prepare, and left out crucial information. He could have done exactly what he did here, but without doing it calmly. He could have focused only on the negative (the infection, the risk, the problems) and not at all on the positive (the fact that they were already social distancing), or he could have focused all on the positive and not acknowledged the negative.

Most of us have worked with bosses that made mistakes like these when there was no pandemic—or any other crisis. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine how badly this story could have turned out if Peter had handled it any differently.

Another way to view this story is to appreciate the details in the story through which Peter exhibits leadership. For example, notice how he stopped and thought methodically about how to handle the situation with his team. He considered their points of view when he could have just ruminated about himself. He thought about the result he wanted to create with his team. Because of this reflection, he could see the benefit of raising the issue explicitly, and he also recognized that, as a person who actually had the disease, if he could be calm and handle it well, the act of doing so would give him moral authority when asking his team not to panic either. He was able to point out the benefits to them of social distancing, help them see how to act responsibly, and alleviate many of their concerns. In fact, many of the employees followed suit, and Peter’s department continues to function well.

Even better, at the time I am writing this, Peter reports that he is now “at the tail end of [his] own illness and [is] fortunate that it’s been a pretty mild case overall.”

Peter had the benefit of a department that had a habit of communicating well. Good management at regular times can make good leadership easier when a crisis hits.

Serious social distancing began in the United States just a week before I began teaching my leadership class with Peter and 99 other MBA students in the University of Louisville’s College of Business’ Professional MBA and Full-Time MBA programs. In my four-week leadership class, I assign students to identify at least two episodes every week in which they will practice applying the leadership principles they are learning. As a result, I collect hundreds of stories of leadership, some simple, some dramatic, and most of which are inspiring in small or large ways. Over the next few weeks I will share many of these stories and identify the leadership principles at play in the stories as a way of showing how we can do more than just survive the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, but perhaps, together, we can also learn how to thrive.

About the Blog

The entries in this blog examine stories of leadership performed by my Masters of Business Administration students at the University of Louisville College of Business. Our classes on leadership began shortly after social distancing began in the United States. I was asked to produce content for the College that would be helpful to individuals and organizations struggling to manage the new, jarring, and complex problems we all face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but at first, I worried that I would have little to offer beyond the wonderful content I have seen so many others produce. Then, my students began to report on the leadership efforts they exhibited in my class. The challenges they face are diverse and wide-ranging, but their efforts are inspiring. Therefore, I am now sharing some of their experiences, as well as some of my analyses of their experiences. My hope is that this will both inspire readers and also give readers concrete ideas about how they too can exhibit exceptional leadership during these difficult times.

About the Project on Positive Leadership

The Project on Positive Leadership is an initiative within the University of Louisville’s College of Business with a mission to make lives more significant and successful by increasing positive leadership in the world. We do this by creating and disseminating tools for teaching and learning positive leadership, by supporting research on positive leadership, and by connecting with others who embrace the same or similar missions, in order to enhance each other’s impact. We also work in conjunction with Executive Education to deliver these tools to managers wishing to enhance their leadership capability.

About the Author

Dr. Ryan Quinn

Ryan W. Quinn is an Associate Professor of Management and the Academic Director of the Project on Positive Leadership at the University of Louisville College of Business. He has written books and academic articles on leadership and related topics, with an interest in understanding how to help individuals and organizations unleash their potential. He also teaches executives, MBA students, and consults for organizations around the world.

[1] I share this story, and all stories in this blog, with permission from the protagonists.