Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis

By Darryl Wee, Edmund Koh | May 1, 2020

Key Takeaways: 

  • Leadership best practices must be adhered to staunchly during a global pandemic.
  • Standout behaviors from leaders during this global crisis include: navigating paradox, remaining agile, communicating transparently, and enrolling their teams. 

As each of us deal with the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, we have been struck by the difference in how business leaders of countries across the region are responding.

China was first at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, but it quickly spread. Countries in close proximity were forced to start grappling with a largely unknown virus at a time when many Asian nations were planning to celebrate the lunar new year. Within weeks, the infection spread across many countries and we saw many different responses to managing the virus.

Each country’s context is different, with diverse cultures and expectations making the effectiveness of the measures taken difficult to evaluate. Despite these differences, the coronavirus hit all of us hard regardless of culture, age, gender or wealth.

In times of crisis, we can see true leadership come to the fore. Looking at how leaders in governments and businesses have responded to the pandemic so far gives us an opportunity to look at what leadership entails in a time of crisis. These lessons are important to capture as they will serve as useful references for leadership and growth for the future.

Here are some leadership lessons that we thought might be useful to share:

1. In navigating paradox there is no right answer, so do what’s right. Leaders must learn how to operate in environments filled with paradox. This becomes even more acute in times of crisis management, for example, should we preserve our cash in our balance sheet or do we protect the livelihoods of our employees? Do we lock down cities to stop the spread of the virus or allow businesses to operate so as to not affect the economy?

Some governments quickly took the bull by the horns and shut down cities to stop the spread of the virus. This was not a popular or easy decision for any government, but it was implemented for the greater good. We need to learn how to set aside personal and political agendas – being caught up with that has its own risks of backfiring. In an environment like today, we all have to manage the competing demands of various stakeholders. Unlike school examinations, there is no one correct answer.

So as leaders we need to learn how to manage this paradox, and do what is right. We will continue to see leaders facing difficult decisions, such as determining what should be done in the short term and considering the impact to the long term. Sometimes doing what’s right is not going to make you popular, however are we doing this for the greater good or are we doing this for ourselves?

2. Be agile and learn quickly. It is critical to react and adapt to the daily escalations quickly as new information emerges from medical experts and government organizations. One thing we can learn from successful leaders in this crisis is how they listened to the views of epidemiologists, doctors, economists, lawyers and specialists.

This practice builds on each individual’s specialty, which then amalgamates into a stronger integrated solution ready to be implemented, supported by transparent communication. The key is not to just listen to the experts but also to your people regularly so you can also understand the feelings and concerns from the ground. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong decision but what makes the most logical sense at that point in time.

When we do what we feel is right, it sometimes puts us in a position where we lock ourselves into a specific point of view. However, in this crisis, we have seen leaders starting decisively with a position and being able to later adjust quickly. The ability to be agile and pivot is key whether we are in a crisis management situation or not. A critical skill in agility is one’s ability to continue learning and this comes from both success and failure. It is learning from the failures, that enable leaders and organizations to grow.

3. Communicate transparently to build trust. Talking about any crisis is never easy - it creates fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Leaders need to learn how to communicate so people have a sense of security, be able to cope emotionally and know what they need to do next. Smart leaders are able to create various ways to listen to feedback and use different mediums to get their message across. Those that are honest and transparent have an opportunity to build loyalty and lead more effectively. If this is done well, this builds the level of trust between leaders and their stakeholders. An example is to look at the approaches and impact made by the way Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern chooses to communicate. Building trust is never more important than during a time a crisis.

4. This is a marathon not a sprint, so enroll the team and the ecosystem. During this COVID-19 crisis, effective management comes from everyone working together to help respond to the virus. It is not about one leader being the center of attention and making all the decisions. The most effective responses to the virus have been from countries that have their leaders and citizens working together as one. As a leader, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you include others with different skills and perspectives, the faster you would be able to build more holistic solutions that are effective.

Building the solution is only one part of the equation, the ability to enroll and engage the key stakeholders in the ecosystem is key for implementation. There have been many examples of businesses, large and small working together to offer food and transport to frontliners, or sewing reusable mask to help alleviate the shortage of supply for the general public. The leader’s ability to unleashing people’s community-mindedness is a key skill. Do not underestimate the power of being other-directed and committed to the common good.


The COVID pandemic will be something in history that the world will never forget. This tragedy has brought a globally connected world, with trade and people flowing freely, to a sudden halt. The manner in which we live and work will never be the same again, and the economic impact has not yet been fully tallied, but appears to be devastating.

All of us are leaders in some way or another – of a nation, a firm, a NGO, a community or family – and we cannot afford not to learn from this crisis.

Darryl is the managing director of The RBL Group in Asia. He has more than 20 years of experience in business consulting, human resources and leading organizational change.

About the author

Edmund Koh is President UBS Asia Pacific of UBS Group and UBS AG. Edmund has more than 30 years of experience in various senior roles in financial services.

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