How Not to Manage a Crisis: Lessons From COVID-19

Listening to experts is currently very fashionable. So as a management Ph.D., I guess that entitles me to comment on the ineffective crisis management response to COVID-19 in the United States.

While there seems to be agreement in the mainstream media with the temporary suspension of modern life, debates over the proper actions needed to “flatten the curve” are all over the internet. Common sense and the training to analyze statistical data that experts have provided to the public are not at issue here. Instead, I intend to look at the response to COVID-19 situation as a failed attempt at crisis management, and one from which we should draw some lessons.

It is not my intention to serve up more bombast, but I would suggest that the response to COVID-19 should be studied for years to come as a case study in how not to handle a crisis.

Let’s play along with the CDC and agree that COVID-19 needs to be contained as soon as possible. Let’s further agree that the appropriate response is to get everyone inside and quarantined as soon as possible to stop the spread of the virus. In order to do that, those in power need to convince the populace that, no matter the hardship endured by stopping life as we know it, for the time being, doing so is necessary to ensure everyone’s survival.

That is a task at which our political and business leaders have failed in two egregious respects. First, they’ve been unable to foster a shared sense of mission. Second, they’ve failed to show shared sacrifice.

Shared Mission

To effectively mobilize an organization to respond to a crisis, it is crucial to have everyone strongly identify with a shared vision of action and to mobilize everyone to go full speed ahead toward that end. Our leaders have done the opposite with COVID-19.

Americans are not convinced that COVID-19 is as deadly as the experts make it out to be. I’ve engaged numerous people in public (both younger and older) and the majority response is one of disdain towards the media for causing a panic, not fear of COVID-19 infection or transmission.

As more institutions close daily, thus causing anticipatory stress of what’s next, more people are coming together not to fight the virus, but to question why such drastic measures are necessary. Hence, our leaders effectively have mobilized people to do the opposite of what they want everyone to do.

If we were going to take the draconian actions of shutting down much of the economy for a period of time, leaders needed to communicate the necessity of such actions in an organized fashion where everyone can know the intended outcomes and with much more empathy than we’ve seen demonstrated in order to squelch mass hysteria.

Rather than press conferences and word of closures trickling out to the public like water from a leaky faucet, our leaders needed to speak to the people directly and often. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the importance of his fireside chats during the Great Depression. We’ve now gone from “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to “the only thing we can do is fear because we don’t know what’s next.”

Shared Sacrifice

One of the worst actions a leader can take is to ask followers to sacrifice greatly while that leader does not participate in that sacrifice. This is why people tend to come together to condemn multi-million-dollar golden parachutes for executives that run companies into the ground. To mobilize what we are asked to do to combat COVID-19, there needed to be some sign of shared sacrifice from our elites.

Failure to bring us all together in shared sacrifice has caused further polarization, this time between young and old, and between knowledge workers versus service workers. It’s easy for CDC officials, news media, and academics to support mass quarantines of asymptomatic waitresses and hairdressers because those elites will still get their full paychecks throughout the quarantine. If the powers-that-be somehow enacted wage controls that capped incomes at $750 a week during the quarantine, you’d see more unified questioning from everyone about the temporary deprivation of their livelihoods.

Do not take that last point as advocacy of cutting off everyone’s incomes. As Abraham Maslow modeled in his hierarchy of needs, those secure with the current risks to their mortality will not be able to function optimally if they lack financial security. Communicating that “a stimulus package is coming in the future” is nowhere near as effective as proactively communicating a plan of shared sacrifice and of keeping everyone financially whole from the start.

I hope that once we begin to return to normal, people will question our leaders’ fitness to manage a crisis. If we can find silver linings from a crisis management perspective, there is a ready-made interview question that should be posed to any future prospective leader: If you were leading the country through the COVID-19 pandemic, what would be your plan of action? Anyone who cannot answer that question effectively should not be entrusted with people’s livelihoods nor with the power to declare a state of emergency.

As we learned from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

About Jason Fertig

Jason Fertig is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. His research interests involve effective management and leadership. He also has an interest in commenting on the state of higher education. He has written essays for the National Association of Scholars and The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He also advises the College Republicans at The University of Southern Indiana.

Photo: Ryan Smedstad/EyeEm/Getty Images

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