Covid-19 – not just a crisis of leadership, but also followership?

LIO master student Peter Gollowitsch has already reflected about the Special Issue “Leadership and the coronavirus crisis” in the journal “Leadership”. Here, Yiannis Gabriel, professor of leadership at the University of Bath, already reflected about the relationship between leaders and followers in the current crisis by drawing on a comparison between Homer’s Ulysses and Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens”. In a recent blog post, he extends these reflections to ask what we, as followers, can do to avoid a “regress to primitive forms of mental functioning” where we classify things as either good or evil and look for someone to blame for our troubles.

Instead, he suggests that we start by accepting uncertainty. “Like millions of people before us who lived through wars, dislocations, famines, and natural disasters, we must understand that safety and certainty are desirable but cannot be vouchsafed by anyone. Politicians are unable to provide safety and certainty, but neither are scientists.” As a second measure, we can take responsibility for our own actions, “aiming to reduce the risks to ourselves and our fellow citizens.” Here, again, we need to accept the uncertainty that what is thought to be risky/responsible behavior is likely to change over time as our knowledge about the pandemic changes. Third, he asks us to “strengthen our communal attempts to address the suffering of those of our fellow citizens who are worst hit by the crisis.”

He concludes that “As a test of followership, the best that COVID-19 can offer us is an opportunity to accept and live with the adversities of life; liberate ourselves from false beliefs in the omnipotence of leadership, scientific and political, in resolving all our troubles; and restore our faith in ourselves as citizens capable of holding our leaders to account, while taking responsibility for our own actions.”

As recent developments show, it seems to be exactly this latter point which is surprisingly difficult to achieve. In expressing their disappointment with leadership unable to provide clear guidance and a quick solution, many people react by blaming leaders, opening up to conspiracy theories, denying the risks posed by the pandemic and turning to irresponsible behavior. Yet, the way forward seems to lie in the ambigous zone between “good” and “evil”: accepting that leaders may be wrong and uncertain themselves, accepting that scientific knowledge is changing, accepting that there is no ultimate truth yet at the same time also behaving in a responsible way on the basis of the best knowledge we have. Being responsible to fellow citizens does not imply being uncritical of the measures taken and of societal developments, it does not imply a blind followership of political leaders – but indeed, this is hard to fit into a “good” vs “evil”, “them” versus “us” scheme as evidenced currently between those that wear masks in certain situations (declared as uncritical and blind followers manipulated by the government) and those that don’t (self-declared as the only critical minds left).

Reflections on the pandemic as a chance to collaboratively modernize higher education

Hannah Trittin, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at Leuphana University Lüneburg and organizer of the classes 6 (social media) and 11 (inequality), has reflected on her experience in participating in our “Times of Crisis” course in a Story for Future for the OS4future initiative.

She argues that “the course sets a signal that despite the growing international competition in academia, joining forces and acting together is possible and can deliver great results. It also offers a glimpse into the potentially bright future of higher education teaching in which we stop thinking in silos. Rather than keeping material developed by individual professors locked up in university-specific platforms, this course combines the knowledge of several experts, and makes it available to the general public.”

She also questions whether this will mean professors will become redundant: “After all, if teaching material is available, including reading and assignment suggestions, all you need then is a person who is willing and capable to grade student assignments.” However, she does not agree with this view (and nor do I): “The Times of Crisis project shows that only because of high quality research that the involved colleagues conduct, the teaching material is diverse, yet, of high quality. Furthermore, the course instructors at each university spent a significant amount of time on discussing the course contents and assignments with students – just as they would have in a traditional course format – whether it is asynchronous or synchronous. Simply put: online teaching materials complement, but do not replace good teaching.”

Excitingly, Hannah is already thinking about her next open course project. Together with Copenhagen Business School, she will conduct a joined global classroom project on datafication ( using materials provided by scholars such as Mikkel Flyverboom (CSB), Armin Beverungen (Leuphana) and Thomas Gegenhuber (Leuphana) to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives to the topic of data and organizations.

I myself took the inspiration further and, together with colleagues from Australia, Germany, the UK and the US, set up the UP:IT platform to build an online teaching collection on sustainable development and transformation.

I fully agree with Hannah: “My hope is that this project inspires other colleagues to make their material available, so that a broad audience has access to publicly funded expert knowledge. I will certainly continue to walk this path.”

Blurring the line between social and economic imperative – an optimistic revaluation of social leadership in a crisis

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkassi on Unsplash

This blog post is provided by Peter Gollowitsch, a student in the Master program Leading Innovative Organizations at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Peter is (co-)founder of several start-ups and also Director Consulting and Concept at netural.  

Normally an organization’s environment changes at variable, but reasonably foreseeable levels. It is a leadership task to continuously monitor and control the effects those changes might have on the organization. Sometimes the amplitude of this “frequency of change” is higher, leading to a higher degree of management attention. As soon as management has adopted the organization to the consequences of such a change (or the threat luckily has passed by), management attention for environmental variables goes back to a normal level. To the contrary, if the threat cannot easily be averted and is “beyond the scope of everyday business and … threatens the operation, safety and reputation of an organization”, management attention increases further and switches crisis-response-mode to “mitigate such a critical situation as soon as possible in order to reduce to the minimum the negative effect of the crisis.” (Pedraza, 2010)

In our current crisis situation, threat is continuous (Muñoz, 2019) and the predictability and influenceability of the consequences are at an unprecedented low level (Gundel, 2005). The “frequency of change” in our environment is at a permanent peak – but which organization can stand a permanent crisis-mode? And how can leaders tackle the enduring high level of uncertainty that comes with this crisis on a social and economic level?

“I flag the (ir)relevance of most leadership theories to the challenges that lie ahead, and suggest that the coronavirus crisis again shows the need for our scholarship to be more relevant, address big issues and become less introspective”, states Tourish (2020) in the introduction to the recent special issue “Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership” published in the journal Leadership.Tourish argues that mainstream leadership theories are of little help in guiding leaders through such crisis situation, because they tend to assume that leaders have sufficient information, expertise and resources to guide their followers through a crisis. Yet, as also argued in lecture 5, leaders in the current crisis need to “cope with radical uncertainty and make decisions where the margin of error is high and the consequences of failure potentially catastrophic” (p. 265). Going through several examples of populist leaders in the coronavirus crisis that are also discussed in other articles in the special issue, he comes to the conclusion that “Undaunted, populist leaders exploit uncertainty to suggest that simple solutions will work. I suggest that the responses of such leaders have been characterized by incompetent leadership, denialist leadership, panic leadership, othering leadership and authoritarian leadership”.

Tourish argues, however, that the coronavirus crisis might be an opportunity for rethinking leadership theory and practice – particularly with regard to the underlying theory of the firm which is oriented towards shareholders (rather than stakeholders) and the underlying assumption that a concentration of power and surveillance would be decisive, particularly in times of crisis.

What can be expected from leaders in such a complex situation is a very present topic in research and media these days. For example, the question around the scarcity of masks and whether preparedness was appropriate or not is prominent in public debates, questioning the leadership of governmental actors. But also hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide face a crisis of leadership, because they have to tackle the dual demands of economic survival and social responsibility. If they take the latter seriously, their burden at first sight doubles up. But if they don’t, they might stumble in the long run.

There are numerous positive examples in the context of this crisis – in both, public and business leadership – that demonstrate in an admirable way how successful leadership in a crisis is driven not only by economic motivators. In what follows, I will draw on some of these examples to develop ideas on what the future of leadership might look like, particularly with regard to the tension between economic and social imperatives.

In the corporate sphere, Microsoft is being cited by Tourish as an example where hourly workers on the companies campus have been fully paid over weeks although their workload had massively reduced due to most of the employees working from home.

New Zealand responded to the COVID 19 crisis with a multi-phase plan that was guided by the best scientific health advice available to the government. While there was a certain level of preparedness based on pre-existing influenza-plans, one of the key factors to tackle the crisis so well here was the communicative grounding (Cornelissen, 2014) laid by the empathic leadership style of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern who was led by respect for science, facts and evidence (Wilson, 2020).

To my estimation, comparatively little focus these days lies on how SME’s tackle this crisis (as approached for example by Herbane, B. 2010), as well as independent professionals or even hourly workers (e.g. in private households). Some personal observations (from Austria) between March and June of this year exemplify that empathic and social acting in an economic context might serve as a valid strategy in crisis-management.

Similar to the Microsoft example, there were entrepreneurs paying their employees the delta between public pay for short-time work and the net income. Likewise, families paid their cleaning ladies or nannies although those couldn’t come for weeks. In both cases, the benefit for the employees was evident. Motivation and confidence of workers was strengthened and commitment to the employer grew in the still difficult time after the phase of social-distancing.

Some entrepreneurs engaged in remote social activities and organized meetups for non-commercial topics that helped employees last through lockdown phase such as listening to each other’s travel reports, exchanging valuable information on local shops that would do home delivery or supporting kids with home schooling and education during lockdown phase. This extra effort had to be organized and communicated at a time when the impact on the organization was just unfolding its full economic threat for a company. But ultimately, these measures helped to increase the resilience of the whole organization in a phase where uncertainty in societs was at its maximum: The demand for informal social contacts, that normally happened in breaks and chats in the office, could be remotely fulfilled in those special interest channels. Informal communication was actively kept alive between colleagues and actual worries and fears could be exchanged and discussed. Such the cohesion of the members of the organization was preserved and individual uncertainty could be lowered.

One entrepreneur – a renowned hairdresser with over 20 employees  – refused to dismiss any employee although he was prohibited to open his business by law during lockdown for almost three months. In the first four weeks after opening his shop again he almost totally caught up his revenue loss from the lockdown as he was able to put his motivated (and thankful) team to work at full capacity.

Another example from a SME: the company paid employees – that otherwise would have been sent to short-time work – to exclusively work on a project for an access control software in public spaces during COVID-19. Like many others the company had actualized opportunities that had occurred through the massive change in the environment. Only four weeks after lockdown they rolled out the product successfully to all hospitals in upper Austria. Other colleagues experienced sensemaking by the success story and started to think how to sell the product to other clients.

My suggestion would be to further investigate those numerous “small business cases” in the context of crisis management, as valuable patterns might be recognized that contribute to leadership theory on its way through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

„What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead“ (D’Auria & De Smet, 2020)

Summing up, I would emphasize, in line with the above quotation: especially during a fundamental global crisis, capacity building on an individual leader’s and organizational level is more “key” to tackle such extraordinary challenges than discussing preparedness on a procedural level. This argument also builds on the observation of Berthod et. al. (2016) – Class 4 – that procedures are less viable in a crisis representing an “extraordinary incident” (i.e. little predictability) than a “routine incident”, as well as on the literature of lecture 2 where it is argued that organizational bricolage and the building of socio-cognitive resources foster an organizations resilience to unexpected incidents (Bechky et. al., 2011). Similarly, Gundel (2005) states that in complex crises (i.e. with a mixed character such as global warming or COVID-19 pandemic), formal classifications of incidents (which are a prerequisite for standard procedures) are subject to change due to their low predictability.

Such, as a notorious optimist, I support Tourish’s idea that a new notion of leadership might arise out of the present crisis – particularly one that will blur the lines between social and economic imperatives in leadership theory and practice.

Thanks to Elke Schüßler for feedback and support.

This text is mainly inspired by:

Tourish, D. 2020. Introduction to the special issue: Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership. Leadership, 16(3): 261–272.

It further draws on:

Bechky, B. A., & Okhuysen, G. A. (2011). Expecting the unexpected? How swat officers and film crews handle surprises. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 239–261.

Berthod, O., Grothe-Hammer, M., Müller-Seitz, G., Raab, J., & Sydow, J. (2016). From high-reliability organizations to high-reliability networks: The dynamics of network governance in the face of emergency. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, muw050.

Cornelissen, J. P., Mantere, S., & Vaara, E. 2014. The contraction of meaning: The combined effect of communication, emotions, and materiality on sensemaking in the stockwell shooting: the contraction of meaning. Journal of Management Studies, 51(5): 699–736.

D‘Auria, De Smet, 2020. Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges, McKinsey,

Gundel, S. 2005. Towards a new typology of crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 13(3): 106–115.

Herbane, B. 2010. Small business research: Time for a crisis-based view. I​nternational Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship​, 28(1): 43–64.

Muñoz, P., Kimmitt, J., Kibler, E., & Farny, S. 2019. Living on the slopes: Entrepreneurial preparedness in a context under continuous threat. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 31(5–6): 413–434.

Pedraza J., 2010. Elements for effective management of a business corporation crisis situation in P. Alvintzi et. al., Crisis Management. Nova Science Publishers pp. 1-46.

Wilson, S. 2020. Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. Leadership, 16(3): 279–293.

“You haven’t learned anything about the plague. It will always come back”

A group of critical management scholars around my colleague Ronald Hartz from the University of Leicester has formed a virtual reading group on “The Plague – Diagnostics, Aesthetics and Politics of the Pandemic”, which I had the pleasure of joining for one session. Part of the agenda was a re-reading of Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague and a discussion of the 1992 film by Luis Puenzo based on the book (in addition to lots of Foucault, of course). There was a general sentiment of the film not being very good for various reasons, and particularly when seen as an adaptation of Camus’ book, but I found it interesting to watch in the light of today’s situation. Of course, Camus’ plague is fictional and written more as a metaphorical critique of fascism than as a critical analysis of pandemics, but it draws on historical evidence on previous pandemics, so many parallels to today’s situation became evident.

One thing I found striking was to see the sudden shift from normal, joyful social life to the lockdown situation, illustrating how things that we usually take for granted can suddenly become risky and forbidden. It seems absurd – but this does not mean it is not real, nor that it can not last. As Camus’, an absurdist philosopher, famously wrote in The Plague, a quote that also appears (in altered form) in the film: “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though the war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves”. The same can be said about the pandemic. “It” – the pandemic, a war, fascism – “always catches us off-guard”.

The film also captures well the different realities of people – some still hustling and bustling in bars and restaurants, others directly faced by horrible disease and death. Through frequent references to the smell and sound of death in the film, especially the haunting scream of the dying choral boy, we get a sense of what it might be like for those working “on the frontline” of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of course for the families directly affected, the fates and suffering of which is buried behind death statistics and largely invisible to us. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of the book and film (played by William Hunt), desperately revolts against the transformation of human existence into bureaucratic entries by asking an official overseeing a quarantine camp to write a woman’s full name instead of just giving her a number. Yet, especially in highly affected areas, it is an inevitability to “administer” death through mass graves and statistics. Such depersonalization is a core ambivalence of bureaucratic systems (see lecture 3).

It is maybe not surprising that Camus picked the plague as the “pandemic of choice” to provide a critique of fascism. As Alan McKinlay argues in his article “Foucault, Plague, Defoe”, Foucault sees the plague a “a vital conceptual and historical bridge between the classical and modern ages; between different institutions; and between ‘disciplinary’ power and ‘biopower’” (p. 168). While leprosy could be dealt with by excluding infected individuals, the plague hit the heart of entire populations, requiring elaborate systems of management and regulation, discipline and surveillance. For Foucault who has extensively studied and written about the emergence of modern health and punishment institutions (e.g. 1973; 1977), the plague constituted “a moment at which all existing conceptions of the body, of family and social life, of the divine, and the nature and purpose of political authority were thrown into total confusion” (p. 168). The modern clinic and public health policies can be seen as disciplinary spaces as much as the modern prison.

Animals, a source of pandemics throughout history, appear only in the beginning of the film where we see sick rats hushing through buildings. But these images remind us that pandemics result from a mix of inhumane living conditions and an unhealthy relationship between humans and animals – a mix not only evidenced by reports about the Wuhan animal markets, but also by the insights into meat factories in the heart of Europe where people – like animals – are herded up and treated like disposable cattle.

In the film, we see people being pulled out of houses and put into quarantine by force. What is meant as a metaphor for the treatment of people deported to concentration camps during the holocaust by Camus, we have seen similar pictures from Wuhan in January and February 2020. Many of us perceived these as surreal or science-fiction-like. But, as The Plague reminds us, these practices are not only real today, but have also been real in the past. We see auxiliary hospitals being erected; we see face masks, a struggle to make sense of death counts and statistics and attempts at revealing the outbreak and criticisms of autopsies. Despite centuries of progress in medical science, we are left to archaic methods of confronting the virus, something epidemiologists today frequently stress in the public debate. These methods are not uncontested, because they reassert the power of the State which is necessary to confront complex crises, but can also easily be abused by populist and authoritarian leaders. When a family whose daughter has died from the plague in the film is being held in quarantine for months without any justification, Rieux, in the scene mentioned before, blames the official to “treat everyone like a suspect“, indicating that the measures he himself supported from a medical standpoint were being abused by people that “think they are God” and end up “locking up the whole city”. I would argue that the thin line between an assertive state necessary to handle the pandemic and save people’s life and authoritarianism is a key struggle for national leaders – particularly in Europe where the history of fascism is still very near. “There is a bit of the plague in all of us” is a repeated message – and one that I would say many political leaders in Europe have taken quite seriously.

In both the book and the movie, the confrontation between the scientist and humanist Dr. Rieux and the priest Father Paneloux is central. While the priest refers to the plague as the tribunal for people’s sins, Rieux emphasizes the Sisyphean task of trying to safe life by life, driven only by humanist values and not a belief in a greater order. Here Camus’ philosophy of absurdity, in which he asks us to think of Sisyphos as a happy person, comes to life through Dr. Rieux who recognizes and accepts the absurdity of life and inevitability of death, yet revolts against it by trying to live the best life possible, which is where – according to Camus – freedom can be found. But what is the role of religion in the current Covid-19 crisis? Organized religion was shut down early in the pandemic and excluded from its usual role in accompanying death as an infection control measure. It was and still is in the news as a site of superspreading events. In this way, organized religion has been rather silent – whereas it provides the soundscape of The Plague movie, which has psalms, sung by an innocent boy, as its main soundtrack. Religion also surfaces in broader frames and discourses: is the disease a punishment for our exploitation of nature (religious frame), or a natural evolution that happens from time to time (evolutionary frame)? Church groups have played an important role on the community level, providing services like food delivery for the elderly in many places. Without faith, journalist Martine Rambert (a character created just for the movie) argues, the world is a desolate place: “there is only the present, no memory, no hope” – but memory and hope – whether from a religious or humanistic angle – is needed to move forward in times of crisis. And since modern society with its focus on self-optimization has little solace to offer when it comes to death and disease, religion might also play an important role on an individual level as people struggle to accept that death is a normal part of life, of which for instance the suffering of Jesus on the cross is a constant reminder. The conflict between Rieux and Paneloux is somewhat resolved as Paneloux gets involved in caring for the sick and it becomes clear that both strive for the same: empathy and solidarity.

So, as a distraction of or complement to your coursework, I can recommend that you read and watch “The Plague”. While not the greatest movie ever made, it adds a layer of sound and visuals to the more sterile images we get from the news. The book has seen record sales during the coronavirus crisis already. If you want more, you can also look at Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, a chronicle of the 17th century London plague outbreak written in a unique style that veers between historical fact and fiction to express the confusion and extraordinary events societies were put into because of the plague outbreak.

How to deal with COVID-19? A comparison between public and private organizations

This blog post is provided by Marlene Welzl, a student in the Master program Leading Innovative Organizations at the Johannes Kepler University Linz. Marlene has been working for the Austrian foreign ministry and is cofounder of the intergenerational housing platform Wohnbuddy.  

COVID-19 is definitely a challenge for the society as a whole. It does not matter how your personal circumstances look like – whether you are sitting alone or with your small children at home or whether you are staying 24/7 with your partner in a small city apartment -, the pandemic is a challenge for everybody. But COVID-19 is not only a challenge on the individual level, but also on the organizational level, whether it be a private business or a public organization. In this blogpost, I am discussing the similarities and differences of the crisis management between public and private organizations during the peak of the pandemic in Austria.

Since we have gained insight in how the company Blum managed COVID-19 through the interview Leonhard Dobusch from the University of Innsbruck conducted with Urs Bolter, a member of the management board of Blum, I will take the company Blum as an example for a private organization. Blum is an international and family-owned manufacturer of furniture hardware with its headquarters situated in the Austrian province Vorarlberg. Blum employs close to 8.000 people and, in addition to Austria, has production plants in the United States, Poland and Brazil. Regarding public organizations, I take the Austrian health ministry and the Austrian foreign ministry as examples, since these two ministries played a crucial role in dealing with the pandemic in the public sphere. My information regarding the crisis management of the Austrian health ministry is based on a newspaper article. Regarding the crisis management of the foreign ministry, I conducted an interview with an Austrian diplomat.

Installing internal taskforces as a reaction to the immediacy of the crisis

Whether it is the Blum company or the health or the foreign ministry, all the organizations were hit by the immediacy of the crisis. In order to deal with this immediacy, they have immediately installed organizational internal taskforces responsible for dealing with the pandemic. In the Blum company, this taskforce includes the majority of the top-management team, a few experts analyzing the necessary data for decision-making day by day and a communication specialist. This taskforce has stand-up meetings every morning and decides on a daily basis about the most important tasks that need to be done. “Within minutes we make decisions, under normal circumstances such a fast decision-making process is not possible”, reports Urs Bolter. 

In the Austrian health ministry, the taskforce consists of about 100 people including lawyers, epidemiologists, medical experts, mathematicians and communication experts. The taskforce includes internal staff as well as 17 external experts. The heads of the seven central administrative units of the health ministry, including communications, IT, action planning and resource management, meet twice a day. Everybody else that has to be part of the meeting joins per video-conference. Each unit uses two PowerPoint slides to report on the current situation. Questions include: How many people are infected by COVID-19? Where can we identify clusters of infections? What about our testing-capacities? What kind of information has been updated in the FAQ section of the Corona-Website?

In order to deal with the pandemic, the foreign ministry installed not a single but several taskforces with different responsibilities (e.g. crisis management, organization of return flights). These taskforces include only internal staff from various divisions. Since diplomats are trained as generalists, the workforce in the foreign ministry is very flexible. Not only taskforces were dealing with the pandemic, but also several departments of the ministry. Thus, the tasks of several departments shifted from “business as usual” (e.g. preparing briefings for high officials) to “dealing with exceptional times” (e.g. procuring medical goods; reporting on the developments regarding COVID-19 in foreign countries; doing shifts in the citizens service hotline).   

Getting used to the home-office and dealing with an unequal distribution of work

The 100 people who are part of the taskforce of the Austrian health ministry cannot work together physically. Apart from 7 people working in a 200 m2 big office, everybody is working from home. The Blum company, too, uses home-office for the employees who are able to do their jobs from home. In the foreign ministry, most people worked from home, except the taskforce “crisis management” and the officials involved in the citizens service hotline.

Furthermore, all organizations installed hotlines. The health and foreign ministry installed a citizens’ service hotline and the Blum company installed a hotline for its 8.000 employees living in 26 different countries. At peak times of the pandemic, the health ministry as well as the foreign ministry were supported by the military in order to manage the high amount of calls.

For the ministries as well as for the Blum company, it is only a small amount of the regular working force that is now working all day long and overtime, whereas the majority of the regular workforce worked less than under normal circumstances or some employees even were not able to work at all.

Different challenges for public and private organizations

Despite the fact that the main organizational structures that the Austrian ministries and the Blum company established in order to manage the crisis are similar, the main challenges these organizations are facing during the pandemic are quite different. Whereas the Blum company channels their resources towards safeguarding their employees’ jobs – Blum regards the protection of their employees´ jobs as their main responsibility during the pandemic – to prevent them from financial problems and thus suffering from additional pressure during these times, the ministries are challenged with gathering and preparing all the relevant information for the decision-makers, the senior officials and politicians responsible for acting in the interest of the people living in Austria. The taskforce of the health ministry gathers and filters information about relevant figures in regard to COVID-19 (e.g. infected people, recovered cases), test and hospital capacities, Covid-19 studies, legal issues, etc. This information is double-checked with public-health experts, lawyers, epidemiologists, social insurance organizations, other ministries and provincial authorities as well as the external experts of the Corona-taskforce. Based on the decisions of the politicians, legal regulations are issued and are communicated to the citizens. According to officials of the health ministry, issuing regulations at such a high-speed is one of the biggest challenges they are currently facing.

The foreign ministry is seriously challenged with organizing return flights to Austria and with being available on-call 24/7 for the citizens. The ten people working in this taskforce are busy with coordinating, gathering and reordering information they have received from the embassies and consulates. They need to gather the following information: What time are flights from destination x to Vienna scheduled? How many passengers can go on this flight? How many Austrians want to take the flight? In a next step, the officials prepare this information for the decision-makers of the ministry who decide upon the return flights in coordination with the Austrian airlines carrying out these flights.    

The pandemic as a serious challenge, but also opportunity for learning

“It feels like, if you would jump on a train that is driving 130 km/h and as soon as you are gaining hold, the train changes its direction”, Florian Pressl says, the head of operations of the taskforce of the health ministry. This statement illustrates how challenging it is to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, even for a high-reliability-organization like the health ministry that has emergency plans for a pandemic. At the same time, the ministries in Austria cooperate and communicate much more than before the pandemic. Thus, COVID-19 could be an opportunity for improving and intensifying the structures of the ministries‘ communication and cooperation in the long-run.

For Urs Bolter, member of the management board of the Blum company, it is in particular the unpredictable nature of the pandemic that makes it so difficult to deal with it, he feels like trying to read the crystal ball. In contrast to the financial crisis in 2008, the pandemic is much more difficult to handle due to its unpredictable nature. At the same time, Urs Bolter also values the personal and organizational learnings he had due to COVID-19. He realized how fast decisions can be made and how fast a product can be developed. Urs Bolter is amazed by the fact that an organization-internal app was produced within a week. “But these learnings can only result from being thrown into ice-cold water”, Urs Bolter emphasizes.  

How to maintain corporate ethics during a crisis?

In this podcast produced by the Nordic Business Ethics Network, business ethics professor Guido Palazzo from the University of Lausanne discusses the concept of ethical blindness, and explains why the conditions fostering ethical blindness are exacerbated during crisis situations. In high pressure situations, people tend to loose they ability to take objective decisions and these patterns of behavior are reinforced by the group. In short: unethical decisions tend to be taken by good people – but in contexts that put pressure on people and allow unethical behavior to become routinized and normalized.

Wealth concentration and inequality after a pandemic: Lessons from the plague

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death, c.1353. Wikimedia Commons

Again I want to draw your attention to a great analysis of history in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, the article How pandemics past and present fuel the rise of mega-corporations by history scholar Eleanor Russell and organization scholar Martin Parker. Of course under the caveat that the world, and the economy, of the 14th century was very different from today, Russell and Parker analyze the dynamics marking the economic recovery from the bubonic plague. Today, we see small companies relying upon government support and large players – such as Amazon – benefitting from the new conditions. In the 14th century, wealthy entrepreneurs ensured a further concentration of their capital through changing their wills and, by combining scale in production with merchant networks, became crucial providers of infrastructure and strengthened their ties to governments. As a result, key markets were dominated by a handful of mega-corporations tightly interwoven with the state. As I have argued elsewhere, rising state power might actually be an opportunity for tackling society’s grand challeges, and concentrated business power, if steered in the right way, can play a key role in building a sustainable economic future. Whether these forces will be used remains one of the biggest questions of today, as also Russell and Parker conclude.

Paul du Gay podcast on bureaucracy

Many students taking this course will already have passed through class 3 with the topic “Crisis Management and Bureaucracy“. On the background reading list, they will have found a reference to Paul du Gay’s book “The Values of Bureaucracy“. Bureaucracy is probably one of the most hotly debated subject and object of organization studies, at least among the general public. While organization scholars tend to agree that bureaucracy has many merits, not least its founding on rational-legal rather than traditional or charismatic forms of authority as argued by sociologist Max Weber, the general public tends to speak about bureaucracy in negative and derogatory terms: as too much red tape and as a synonym for slow and inefficient procedures. Du Gay discusses his thoughts on the ambivalence of bureaucracy for society in his new “quarantine podcast” – a great addition to your readings for this course.

Work in and after Covid-19

Hopes are high that the Covid-19 crisis will improve working conditions for people in so-called “critical” sectors such as nurses, delivery drivers or supermarket cashiers. So far, however, it seems that the ephemeral sound of balcony applause for these workers is trailing off without any substantive improvements being reached. Instead, it seems that inequalities are being cemented further. Large digital platforms like Amazon or Instawork are offering thousands of new gig jobs with excruciating working conditions. Many workers from other sectors, such as hospitality workers, have no alternative but to take up these jobs for a living. Supermarket workers remain scarily unprotected from – sometimes abusive – customers. Worker in garment supply chains remain the weakest link in the chain despite many attempts of improving their working conditions in recent years and now face devestating conditions amid the pandemic outbreaks after many brands have refused to pay for orders, not assuming responsibility for suppliers and workers. In many developed countries, migrant workers living in overcrowded dormitories are the ones most affected by Covid-19 outbreaks, as recently evidenced in Singapore or in the German meat industry. Other developments are more ambivalent. Home work is on the rise, making it easier for some to balance family and work demands and avoiding long commutes, but Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook already announced that this shift would go along with a wage cut, whereas news abound over new and intrusive forms of surveillance of workers in the home office. There is some hope in progressive governments’ attempts to use this crisis to trial out new forms of work, such as Jacinda Arden’s call for a four-day work week to buffer the effects of Covid-19. The global attention that the #democratizework appeal by thousands of academics has received clearly shows the urgent need to rethink the way work is organized. It is now up to each one of us to – as explained in our first lecture – maintain attention to this critical issue for precarious workers at home and abroad. There are many, and each one of them deserves a fair wage and protection at work.