New study on pandemic leadership

Leadership in times of crisis has been an important theme in our course, and popular among students as an essay topic. One student, for example, addressed the question of whether women are the better crisis leaders. In the early months of the pandemic, many also attributed Germany’s relatively good response to the fact that the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was a natural scientist. Joachim Wehner and Mark Hallerberg from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin have now examined these questions systematically. In their study “Pandemic Leadership: Did “Scientists” Lock Down More Quickly?” they found that leaders with science training have not outperformed other leaders in terms of their countries’ coronavirus responses, as detailed in an LSE Blog post. The also find that gender did not have a significant effect. However, their study focused just on one kind of response, the speed of a lockdown. Thus, the findings do not assess the quality and effectiveness of crisis management, e.g. in terms of death numbers or the days in which schools were closed down – aspects that severely affected society. While, as the authors say, generalizations about certain leadership traits have to be treated with caution, further research is needed on which individual, team or political factors led to better crisis response.

Covid, the economy and the climate

While this blog has taken a break in favor of other topics that are still being taught, the crisis has continued into its second and third wave. In one of my earlier posts I shared some reflections about the lessons we can learn from history about where this crisis will lead to. Most of the questions posed are still unanswered. But we have some new material and information to reflect about the questions posed in this course, e.g. the role of leadership in crisis and the relationship between this crisis to others, like the climate crisis. In this video interview, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir reflects about her leadership role and her country’s approach to tackling the pandemic. Aside from the fact that an earthquake was happening right in the middle of the interview, the interview indicates that the 4th lesson from history that “populists have fared poorly” remains true and is very interesting to watch. Whether or not the crisis will lead to a Rooseveltian social and green “New Deal” or a Great Depression, the 3rd lesson, is still much more unclear. While we have many things to learn from the Covid-19 crisis for the “even more daunting challenge of anthropogenic global warming”, as five leading climate scientists argue in this article (Vinke et al. 2020), last year’s hopes that the crisis will lead to shift in people’s consumption-oriented mindsets and to a reorganizing of our economies are somewhat daunted. Many are frustrated with state regulation and emphasize individual liberties rather than a steered change in behavior for a greater public good. But, at the same time, the Covid-19 crisis teaches policy-makers and people alike that a scientific understanding is important as a basis for acting, and that “avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable” (Vinke et al. 2020) is much less damaging than a “wait and see” strategy. Let’s hope that these lessons – from history and from current experience – are widely understood and considered.

Why we treat the climate crisis differently than the COVID-19 crisis – and why this needs to change

An essay by Kathrin Ruhnke from the Universität Hamburg, who is currently in her second year of the master’s programme International Business and Sustainability. She also works for the non-profit organisation Das macht Schule as a project manager for the E-Waste Race, a nation-wide school project on e-waste, recycling and environmental education.

The global community is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. Countless people have already been killed and many more are expected to fall victim to it. It is a health crisis as much as an economic crisis as it threatens the lives of humans and the existence of companies and whole economies alike. It spotlights insufficiencies in our infrastructures and our systems. It amplifies inequalities as those living in poorer and less developed parts of the world suffer the most. It is the climate crisis – a crisis that is currently overshadowed by another one, namely the pandemic caused by the novel COVID-19 virus which has taken over the world since its outbreak in late 2019. Both represent grand challenges, meaning they are “complex, uncertain and evaluative” (Ferraro et al., p. 365). However, while they both pose serious threats to humankind and have many similar effects as the boundaries between these interconnected challenges are fluid,  the two crises are perceived and engaged with very differently: Only one of them has been the primary subject of the world’s newspapers, media channels and public discussion and only one of them has caused disruptive change and radical political action. Advocates of climate action are demanding the same urgency and extensive measures for our global climate crisis. This essay will dismantle the manifold reasons that underly the perception differences and subsequent disparity in engagement and action with regard to these two grand challenges. The aim is to contribute to the discourse on climate action, to illuminate relevant aspects that need to be addressed in order to achieve a similar status for climate change as for the current pandemic, and to argue for why this needs to be achieved.

One of the key aspects that cause us to perceive the COVID-19 crisis and climate change differently is the language we use when discussing these grand challenges. Framing, i.e. the “reformulation of a message and its consequences” (Keren, 2011, p. xi), plays a crucial role in the way we perceive the world. This relationship – the interplay between language and cognition – has been studied by linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers for centuries. By now, numerous studies have shown that the selection of words affect “our memories, judgements, and reasoning” (Harley, 2010, p. 111). Therefore, the way an event is framed shapes how it is perceived. COVID-19 and climate change are perfect examples for this: While the current pandemic has been framed by politicians and the media as a ‘crisis’ from the outset, we still use the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ to describe the human-caused heating of the earth’s surface that is going to cause (and is, in fact, already causing) catastrophic events. The term ‘change’ is not inherently negative as it describes “the result of something becoming different” (Cambridge University Press). Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur, put it like this: “Global is good. Warm is good. Even greenhouses are good places. How can ‘global warming’ be bad?” (Godin, 2006). Hence, many are claiming that the narrative around climate change needs to be shifted. A study by SPARK Neuro tested the emotional responses to different terms for what is commonly referred to as ‘climate change’ and found that the term ‘climate crisis’ caused over three times as much emotional intensity in the participants – a critical fact as emotion is known to be a key determinant of our perceptions and actions. Others are questioning whether climate change really a crisis the way that the current pandemic is one. While defining ‘crisis’ is not trivial, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes it as “a time of great danger, difficulty or doubt when problems must be solved or important decisions must be made” – a description that inarguably fits climate change. Another reason why ‘climate crisis’ should be the chosen term is that the it infuses a sense of urgency that is vital to trigger action. The terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ “do not demonstrate how urgent and catastrophic our environmental position is” (Whiting, 2019). Some have started to recognise the grand power language has over our perception with regard to climate change, like the UK newspaper The Guardian which, in 2019, announced their preference of the terms ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ over ‘climate change’ (Carrington, 2019). While this is a first step in the right direction, describing the heating of the earth’s surface and its consequences as the crisis that it is will need to seep into common discourse in order to change the way it is perceived and to make it as much of a crisis in the public’s mind as COVID-19. As Greta Thunberg put it: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?” (Thunberg, 2019). From this point onward, ‘climate crisis’ will therefore be the chosen term in the course of this essay.

Another factor that greatly impacts the way we perceive grand challenges such as COVID-19 and the climate crisis is psychological distance, i.e. the “subjective mental formation of how close an object or an event is perceived” (Chang et al., 2015, p. 160). Construal level theory suggests that this distance exists on different dimensions, namely time, space, as social distance as well as in the form of hypotheticality (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Zooming in on these dimensions of psychological distance individually aids in explaining why COVID-19 and the climate crisis are perceived so differently. With regard to time, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic already affects our daily lives. The climate crisis, on the other hand, is perceived as something that will mainly affect future generations and therefore appears less relevant at the time being and consequently more distant. The spatial dimension supports this difference, too. While the consequences of the climate crisis that are already visible mostly affect people in poorer and less-developed countries (United Nations, 2016), the current global pandemic is affecting industrialised nations just as much as other countries, with the US currently having the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths worldwide (John Hopkins University & Medicine), thus bringing the COVID-19 crisis closer to people’s own front doors. Similarly, social distance relates to the aspect of whether an event has “an impact on people similar to [our]selves” (Spence et al., 2012, p. 962). This is linked to the previous dimension in that from a Westerner’s point of view the climate crisis, at least currently, mainly affects people from far-away countries who are perceived as different and therefore socially distant. COVID-19, on the other hand, is affecting our families, friends and neighbours, and is therefore socially very close to our own homes. The fourth dimension of psychological distance, i.e. hypotheticality, relates to the extent to which someone believes an event is happening. With new reports on the pandemic on the news every day and the political actions taken to combat the spread of the virus drastically changing our everyday life, COVID-19 seems as certain a crisis as can be. The climate crisis, on the other hand, still has an aspect of uncertainty with possible scenarios of a hypothetical future described by scientists that is unimaginable to many. Hence, for most people the climate crisis is far more psychologically distant on all four dimensions than COVID-19, and because of this they also engage with it to a far lesser extent. “Climate change is an abstract statistical phenomenon, namely a slow and gradual modification of average climate conditions, and thus a difficult phenomenon to detect and assess accurately based on personal experience” (Weber, 2016, p. 125). This phenomenon of psychological distance seems not only to explain why the general public perceives the two grand challenges differently but may also elucidate reasons for the actions (and inactions) of world leaders.

Besides framing and psychological distance, media coverage on the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis is a relevant factor in explaining the varying perceptions and engagement levels as “[m]edia coverage sets the agenda for public debate” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020). While there are additional sources that prompt discussion, it is prominently the media that determines what is debated publicly and that impacts how people perceive the world. This can also be observed currently: The amount of media coverage on COVID-19 is unprecedented as the pandemic is “being mentioned in 80 per cent of stories some days” (Hannam, 2020). The extensive media coverage on the pandemic clearly overshadows the climate crisis. A graph by the Media and Climate Change Observatory shows that the world newspaper coverage on ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ plummeted from nearly 800 articles per source in November 2018 to less than 300 in June 2020. This corresponds with Whitmarsh and Capstick (2018) who found that media “plays a key role in shifting public concern away from environmental issues toward other (e.g., economic) ones” (p. 24). The amount of media attention is not the only aspect that is relevant with regard to public perception and engagement, however. Important is also the sentiment in which the crises are depicted. The coverage on COVID-19 seems to mainly include two messages: one promoting a sense of togetherness and one promoting fear. On the one hand, media puts the individual into the spotlight by stressing the importance of considerate behaviour and emphasising that we “have to stick together” (Sherman, 2020). On the other hand, “fear has played a particularly vital role in coverage of the coronavirus outbreak” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020) as the media refers to it as ‘killer virus’. This sentiment, however, appears to be welcomed because of people’s “thirst for information — and entertainment” (Molla, 2020). Either way, both togetherness and fear are addressing people’s emotions, which is a catalyst for action. With the climate crisis, the sentiment is different as it is “still reported as an overwhelming problem for which solutions are not being developed and implemented” (Mellet, 2020). This goes hand in hand with the aspects of framing and psychological distance discussed above because of a “journalistic bias toward distant and consequence framing in which the civil society remains dismissed from climate change adaptation” (Mellett, 2020). This abstraction of the climate crisis is contrary to the media coverage of COVID-19 in which individuals play a central role and therefore can explain in part why these two grand challenges are perceived and engaged with differently. It remains to say that media has great influential power with regard to people’s behaviour as the example of panic-buying during the outset of the pandemic showed, which is often said to have been caused by (social) media. This power of impacting people’s perceptions and actions should be utilised for the climate crisis which poses just as much of a risk to humans as the current pandemic does.

While the international discourse on the climate crisis is often characterised by apportionment of blame, the current pandemic is accompanied by new levels of international cooperation – a difference that impacts perceptions of and engagement with these two grand challenges. One causes the global community to feel closer as they take on the role of victims (“humanity faces a common enemy in the Covid-19 pandemic” (RT International, 2020)), while the other is mainly portrayed as being certain nations’ fault (“Who’s Most Responsible for Climate Change?” (Lynn, 2015)). From a crisis communication point of view, COVID-19 can be classified as a ‘natural disaster’, meaning that companies and nations can adopt the role of victims (cf. Adkins, 2010). Even though the consequences of the climate crisis are technically speaking also natural disasters (floods, droughts, wildfires, etc.), there is a stronger sense of responsibility as scientist spent the past decades explaining that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are the reason for the heating of the earth. While some scientists (including Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier) argue COVID-19 is also man-made, the global community still feels that they have fallen victim to this disease that is entirely out of their sphere of responsibility. “Coronavirus is a simple, scary threat — and we’re not the villain” (Paddison, 2020). This makes it easier for political leaders to take action as they will be regarded as heroes for combatting this crisis to which they, too, have fallen victim. With the climate crisis, however, any action that is taken by nations could be perceived as an admission of guilt. The unprecedented levels of international cooperation during the current pandemic that have resulted from the common victimhood seem to have caused more openness to innovative ideas. New forms of organising that emphasise social purpose (Mair & Rathert, 2019), such as crowdsourcing and ad-hoc networks are introduced by governments (e.g. the #wirvsvirus hackathon in Germany) in order to quickly find solutions for the issues at hand. Similarly, open science seems to play an integral part in how solutions for the current pandemic are sought. “The intense communication has catalyzed an unusual level of collaboration among scientists that, combined with scientific advances, has enabled research to move faster than during any previous outbreak” (Kupferschmidt, 2020). Such openness has not been displayed and encouraged by political leaders with regard to the climate crisis. However, we can now see how quickly innovative approaches for tackling the manifold effects of a grand challenge can be developed if nations, scientists and the public work together. This kind of approach is what is needed if we want to circumvent a climate disaster.

The reasons for the climate crisis being perceived and engaged with differently than the current pandemic are manifold and all of the aspects mentioned are somewhat interlinked. The way we frame a grand challenge impacts the extent to which a crisis is psychologically distant to us. Media coverage plays a major role in determining the language the public uses to talk about a crisis. The way we spin the story, i.e. whether we are victims or offenders, seems to majorly affect the actions taken. What are the implications of this for climate action? We need to frame the climate crisis in the same urgent manner as COVID-19. We need to understand that the climate crisis is not abstract and distant but already impacts the daily lives of many and will soon determine all our lives as the COVID-19 virus currently does. The media needs to ensure extensive coverage on the climate crisis that engages the audience emotionally to trigger action. We need to collaborate globally and work innovatively to find effective solutions. Imagine political leaders speaking to their nations in special addresses on the climate crisis like this: “But we must now reduce everything that could put people at risk, everything that could harm not only individuals, but also the community” (Merkel, 2020). Adapting the words of Merkel’s speech on the COVID-19 outbreak, it remains to say that we are not condemned to accept the heating of the earth as an inevitable fact of life – we have the means to fight it. The COVID-19 outbreak shows that it can be achieved.

References

Adkins, G. (2010). Organizational networks in disaster response: An examination of the US Government network’s efforts in Hurricane Katrina. In W. Coombs & S. Holladay, The Handbook of Crisis Communication (pp. 93-114). Wiley.

Chang, H., Zhang, L., & Xie, G. (2015). Message framing in green advertising: the effect of construal level and consumer environmental concern. International Journal of Advertising, 34(1), 158-176.

Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015). Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited. Organization Studies, 36(3), 363-390. doi: 10.1177/0170840614563742

Harley, T. A. (2010). Thought. In Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science (pp. 89-115). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Keren, G. (2011). Perspectives on framing. New York: Psychology Press.

Mair, J., & Rathert, N. (2019). Alternative organizing with social purpose: revisiting institutional analysis of market-based activity. Socio-Economic Review, 1-20, in press. doi: 10.1093/ser/mwz031

SPARK Neuro. (2019). Rebranding Climate Change. New York City: SPARK Neuro.

Spence, A., Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. (2012). The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Analysis32(6), 957-972. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01695.x

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117(2), 440-463.

Weber, E. (2016). What shapes perceptions of climate change? New research since 2010. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change7(1), 125-134. doi: 10.1002/wcc.377

Whitmarsh, L., & Capstick, S. (2018). Perceptions of climate change. Psychology And Climate Change, 13-33. doi: 10.1016/b978-0-12-813130-5.00002-3

Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis”

JKU analogue lecture theatre

For all of us that have taught “Organizing in times of crisis” for the first time last summer term, and with the last student essays as well as student feedbacks coming in, now is a time to take stock and share our experiences.

One of our aims in providing this open course platform was to provide course material for a full 6 or even 8 ECTS module, but also give instructors the opportunity to “mix and match” just selected elements of all the course materials. This is exactly what happened: some of us taught all the classes, requiring all the assigmens, for full credit modules; others used selected modules and reduced the number of assignments to fit with smaller 3 ECTS modules or to accompany lectures; and yet other used just individual sessions as part of other courses. Similarly, while we provided a course structure that could be administered in a fully asynchronous way, some of us actually followed this asynchroneous model, whereas others offered some (2-3) synchronous sessions and yet others had weekly synchronous online teaching sessions in which students had to give presentations, for example.

We had mixed impressions of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous versus asynchronous teaching. Those that had many synchronous sessions felt that it was very tiring to concentrate over time, especially with the absence of non-verbal cues and already very high screen time. Conversely, the synchronous sessions were a great chance to catch up with students and get a sense of how everyone was doing. Hannah Trittin from the Leuphana University, for instance, used the synchronous sessions to give students a place to talk to each other during a difficult time. Hannah says that “The students valued that my session openers encouraged communication. For example, I would ask students to quickly grab an object that is valuable to them and present it and its meaning to them in class.”

Those that followed the largely asynchronous mode – which includes myself – felt that giving only written feedback to assignments was not only very time-consuming, but also made it difficult to explain the complex issues at hand in an adequate way. Synchronous teaching sessions are great for addressing some general questions that all students might have and also probing a bit deeper into students’ understanding. These impressions were largely mirrored by the students: at JKU, for instance, I offered the opportunity for additional synchronous sessions, but the majority of students preferred the autonomy of the asynchronous learning mode because they also already had to spend so many hours in front of the computer screen.

Students from Leuphana University appreciated the flexibility of self-study and being able to watch presentations in their own time, the flipped classroom model, the collaboration with other university professors that were experts on their respective topics, the practical relevance of the course and the various small and sometimes creative assignments students had to complete. At the same time, some students missed more opportunities for feedback and exchange. When deciding on the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching of this – or other – courses, context conditions like students’ work loads (how many hours do they already spend in front of the computer?) as well as student numbers and teaching resources (how many written assignments is one able to read and give feedback on with the resources at hand?) thus need to be considered. One of us had great experiences with voluntary virtual Zoom sessions, which only the students that wanted more feedback and exchange attended. Such a model might be useful should the intensive distance learning situation continue. Otherwise, a hybrid approach in which reading, listening (to lectures, but also student presentations) and writing is asynchronous, but regular reflection and discussion sessions for all are held synchronously is probably preferable to a purely asynchroneous mode to deepen the learning experience. Yet, these sessions should be short if they have to be online to limit the screen time, but could be much longer if they were held in person.

Another key aim we had was to bring the expertise of different colleagues that we knew were experts on various facets of crisis management into the (virtual) classroom. All of us found it greatly enriching to not just read and discuss our colleagues’ articles, but to actually have their voices directly with us. Furthermore, we wanted students to be able to transfer the sometimes quite complex and “dry” organization theoretical knowledge to the actual, real-life crisis situation by connecting lectures, scientific articles and newspaper pieces. On this, a student from Viadrina University commented that “I really liked that you picked the article on the Stockwell shootings and I appreciate that you do not just look at management issues, but big societal problems. This is very important to me personally. I also think it is really special that this course is not just a Viadrina course, but that students from other universities are dealing with the same topics. Thank you very much for this opportunity.” Similarly, a student from Hamburg University stated that “Finally a course that really meets the current „Zeitgeist“! Congratulations to the professors for putting together a course in such a short period of time, filled with relevant and genuinely interesting topics. This course really encouraged us to engage with the COVID-19 situation on a deeper level rather than observing it from the sidelines.” As instructors, we felt the same way. If the Covid-19 crisis continues into the next year, which it most likely will, we will surely teach this course again. Some of us will shorten synchronous online teaching, some of us will expand it – and all of us will hope for more in-person interaction time with our students.

We actually have not received much feedback about the blog which accompanies our teaching platform. We think that the blog is a great place for sharing information and reflection on ongoing developments, giving reading and even literature and movie advice, as well as for posting selected student essays and assignments (e.g. here, here and here). This way we can enable a virtual conversation between professors and students from different universities thinking about similar topics. Maybe students were so busy with their regular assignments that they did not follow or use the blog very closely. Thus, another opportunity for the next iteration of this course might be to actively encourage students to write blog posts as part of their assignments. For instance, we posted one video interview with an Austrian company owner and his way of dealing with the crisis. Conducting and sharing such videos on the platform could be a different kind of assignment for students to complete, thus contributing to collective knowledge on “Organizing in Times of Crisis”.

Let’s close with a longer reflection from a student from the Viadrina University: “2020 has been a challenging and confusing year, leading to chaos everywhere. During the most intense phase of social distancing, the semester at the University began. The weeks before were characterized by uncertainty and missing information. This unprecedented time forced a lot of companies to initiate a hiring freeze, which lead to a lot of challenges for the organization I am working for, as it is making revenue through placing job ads. It is obvious that we were and still are facing one of the most challenging crises of my lifetime. This crisis motivated me to try to understand how my co-workers, my supervisors, and I should respond and why some actions were undertaken. Nothing was working the usual way. Because of that, the course with the title “Organizing in Times of Crisis” evoked interest. The description convinced me that I will get a different perspective on the situation and the challenges I personally, my company, and the world face. I hoped I would be able to interlink my own experiences with research and knowledge. I enjoyed the chance to get insight into teaching at other universities all across Germany and Austria. Despite being unable to discover new places it created a sense of unity. In addition to that, even though the material was aligned, the multitude of content created by different people in different manners resulted in a multi-facetted, diversified course. As I was allowed to choose the material that was most appealing to me I was able to learn more about topics that really connected with me, like the article about the hospital in Sarasota where I worked as an intern in 2016. Eventually, the task of writing an essay instead of a seminar paper introduced me to a different format of academic thinking and writing and allowed me to interpret this overwhelming situation more openly. All of these aspects convince me that the knowledge I compiled is stored in my long-term memory.”

Governance responses of infectious disease outbreaks

In module four of this course, you can learn about the dynamics of network governence in the light of emergency. Professor Jörg Raab vom Tilburg University, together with colleagues from Tilburg and from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, has conducted an empirical study on different network governance responses to different pathogens. The results are described in the article “Ex ante knowledge for infectious disease outbreaks” listed under background readings, but also briefly introduced in this video by Jörg Raab. The authors conclude that, first of all, different pathogens create different actor and network structures. In any case, a network coordinating authority (NCA) is needed. In order to function effectively, this NCA not only needs a clear mandate to coordinate the different actors involved in handling the crisis, but also sufficient time and resources as well as the managerial skills of how to governing a dynamically involving network, which includes an awareness and regular monitoring of its evolution over time.

Are women the better crisis leaders?

An essay by Diandra Pittelli, student at the Europan University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany

The corona pandemic has proven to be more than a mere “flu”, it has the world completely under control and has shaped it in many ways. Some countries are more affected than others, and it therefore comes as no surprise that governments also react differently to the crisis.

Reading the newspapers lately, one could easily get the impression that there is a competition in which everyone is rooting to see which countries cope best with the corona crisis. This comparison, which took place in the media, also identified some winners, and they all have something in common: they are females. At the top of the list of role models we find Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or the heads of government of Finland, Taiwan, Norway and Iceland. Given this list, one might conclude that women are better at dealing with the crisis simply because they are women. Similar conclusions were drawn after the 2008 financial crisis, a world ruled by women was considered friendlier and less aggressive. Christine Lagarde, head of IMF, even stated in The Guardian (2018) that if the bank had been called Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers, it would be a different world. As always, the focus is on the ascribed qualities of empathy and care, “It is as if they could hug us warmly and lovingly from the video”, said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in Forbes (2020) when talking about the leading style of certain female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Prof. Dr Jochen Koch’s video “Leading, Sensemaking and the Future“, he says that leadership in crisis represents a balancing act between the need to absorb uncertainty and, on the other hand, the need for open communication. Based on this background I will take a more in-depth look into how politicians are absorbing uncertainty and communicating during the COVID-19 crisis and, by so doing, I want to see if the medias winners (female leaders) are indeed the better crisis leaders.

When talking about top leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted predominantly female politicians. There is Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who explains the infection rates of Covid-19 to the people clearly and soberly. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who exchanges empathy with her people live on Facebook and led her country to the lockdown early on, counts 22 dead so far with a population of 4.9 million inhabitants. Katrín Jakobsdóttir from Iceland stood out in the media for letting everyone in the country get tested for free. Not to forget about the heads of government of Scotland and Taiwan, who received positive feedback, or Erna Solberg in Norway, who held a press conference especially for children and assured them that it was perfectly okay if they were afraid. These women did not hesitate to frame this event as a crisis to create a form of urgency and to drop the old way to handle things and to adopt new tools. Obviously, other countries have also successfully curbed coronavirus spread, but those with female heads are specially pointed out.

Why is that? Right from the beginning of the corona crisis, those female leaders acted resolutely, transparently and, at the same time, showed empathy towards their citizens. Those female politicians absorbed uncertainty and created a common pattern of orientation that made action possible. The opposite is evident with some of their male counterparts. Several heads of state rely on authority and war rhetoric in the corona crisis, have downplayed the seriousness of the situation for a long time or even pointed their finger at other countries. Helen Lewis points out in the “Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft” journal (2020) that women, including those in top positions, appear to take fewer risks than men. Although there is still plenty of research to be done to verify her affirmation, this assumption is widely spread in society, which makes it easier for female politicians to communicate precautionary measures such as school closings or the mandatory wearing of face masks. As a “strong man”, it seems to be more challenging to make risk-averse decisions. The sociologist Eva Illouz stated in Die Zeit (2020) that the reasons for the success of female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis is that “Women pay attention to people and their well-being, while men pay attention to the economy”. According to Illouz, women are so socialized that they act “economically, medically and socially with foresight”.

So far, the prudent government style of female leaders has shown to be very successful; it is therefore, to no surprise that the media headlines are crowning women as the better crisis leaders.

However, saying that women are better crisis leaders just because of their “maternal instincts” is not only wrong, but also potentially dangerous for the advancement of women in politics. Women in politics are no better, “strong men” are just worse. Let us start with the most obvious example: Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the president has found that his policies against lung disease are useless, that the coronavirus cannot be intimidated, dismissed or degraded. “Strong men” come to power because they promise security in uncertain times. They present a simple enemy to the people and claim that only they can take them on. The more power they accumulate by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press, the better this strategy works. However, the virus cannot be delegitimized. Xi Jinping was faced with this problem at the outset of the pandemic when the Chinese government tried to suppress warnings from doctors about the new disease in Wuhan. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil dismissed the coronavirus as a “small flu or cold” and took part in a demonstration against the lockdown in April. While he was demonstrating, his head of communication was already infected. However, female heads of state can hardly be judged as a group because they still represent a small minority given that there are only 14 states with women in the highest position of executive power out of 193 UN member states. Therefore, every analysis of the female leadership figure suffers from a small number of possible cases to observe.

Three further aspects that debunk the statement “women are the better crisis leader” are as follows. First, many sociologists are comparing countries and economies in an undifferentiated way and reduce the differences to the gender of the government. Second, it is too early to assess which reactions to COVID-19 are the most successful from a health and economic perspective. Third, what about the male heads of state who are receiving positive feedbacks regarding their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis like Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor?

So, what can we say about top female politicians? Are women the better crisis leader? As a woman myself, I would have no hesitation in confirming this statement positively. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw conclusions from general studies because a person who makes it to the top in politics must be somehow unusual to start with. He or she needs talent, ambition, vigor and also favorable living conditions. In countries that are not used to female managers, a woman who works her way up to the top should be particularly tough and determined.

At first glance, the fact that top female politicians are better because they have more “empathy” is an attractive argument. Nevertheless, we should be aware of such arguments, because this essentialist gender perspective – men are like this, women like this – has historically always hampered women and is hugely reductionist. Besides, this argument overrides the fact that successful male top politicians also have empathy; in a functioning democracy in which it is essential to collect as many votes as possible, social competence is an advantage. A further possible explanation of why countries with female heads of state do better in this crisis should provide an incentive to think of other mechanisms. For instance, women would come to power more easily in a political culture “in which the government has a fair amount of support and trust,”  argues an article in The Guardian (2020). A country that chooses a “strong man” or where such a person can stay in power through electoral fraud is already in deep trouble.

Concluding, it is therefore not possible to say “women are the better crisis leader” without any hesitation. After hundreds of years of dogma that men are inherently better crisis leaders, the opposite is not suddenly true. Heads of state are not the cause, but a symptom of better government.

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 (https://dataandorganisations.org/) 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 et.al., 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 et.al., 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, http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges

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.