What Can The Coronavirus Teach Us About Leadership At Defining Moments?

March 16, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down. We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: What good leadership looks like at defining organizational moments.

As we all know, world leaders and the global scientific community started the year reacting and responding to a novel coronavirus outbreak in China. Initially, we saw them pursue a ‘Plan A’ strategy of containment, and for a couple of months, we watched the slow and steady collapse of Plan A as the coronavirus spread from country to country. As that happened, we saw and heard leaders and scientists dealing in varying ways with their own creeping doubt that the plan would work.

What did each person do, though, at the defining moment when they personally saw for certain the need for a new plan (we also call that the Brody Moment, in reference to Jaws’ Police Chief Martin Brody’s famous words “You’re going to need a bigger boat”). What did they go through and how long did it take them to get to that point and then to move on? This was a critical test of their leadership, and an opportunity for the rest of us to learn about the importance of decisive action at these times. We’d better learn fast, though, because the coronavirus has arrived at our own doorsteps and it’s suddenly time to rise to the occasion.



When faced with a defining moment  - whether that’s realizing a novel coronavirus can’t be contained, or that a new go-to-market strategy is failing, or that you’re not going to meet a regulatory compliance deadline on time - leaders inevitably go through a cycle akin to the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle - from denial, to anger, to bargaining, to depression, to acceptance. Great leaders understand this natural cycle and don’t waste time getting through it.

  • Denial that Plan A will fail. This is a natural response, especially given how much time and faith went into Plan A, and often how much is riding on its success - whether you’re launching a key project or scrambling to contain an outbreak. Denial might sound like this: “I’ll give the team more time. I’ll find better ways to motivate them. Let’s see how things are in the next review.”
  • Anger at all the factors that seem to be conspiring to sabotage everyone’s best efforts, that the team isn’t working hard enough or smart enough, that well-paid vendors are letting you down, that your culture always fumbles when it comes time to execute, and so on.
  • Bargaining with the senior leadership team, with the project steering committee, or with the Board for more resources, more money and more time.
  • Depression about how failure is going to impact your reputation and credibility, let alone what it’s going to mean to fail at such a high-stakes imperative.
  • Until finally Acceptance that Plan A is doomed and it’s time to move on and course-correct.

This cycle has played out in the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, which the World Health Organization has called a “fiasco” and “much, much worse than almost any other country that’s been affected.” And leaders go through this grief cycle in every business, every day, when they realize their current-course-and-speed will fail. If we’ve learned anything new about this cycle from the coronavirus, it’s that we can’t afford to mourn the demise of Plan A for long before we’ve got the right Plan B underway.

It’s critical to get from denial to acceptance fast, so you can course-correct at a pace that keeps your end goals in reach.


Once you, the leader, are ready to move on, the bigger challenge is getting your people ready to move on to a new plan that they believe in with renewed vigor and excitement, fast. This is enormously difficult, for all the reasons we know about why people struggle with change. The key is to engage all the right people and to get them aligned and mobilized around what they have learned, what changed, and what to do next. That requires them to co-create the plan that takes into account everything they know, everything they believe, and everything that now has to happen.

Consider this real-life example when a Financial Services SVP realized their plan to comply with new anti-money laundering regulations was off-track and they were going to miss their deadline. There was initial hesitancy (denial) about the need to change course, finger-pointing (anger), angling for more resources and more time (bargaining), deep concern on the part of those directly involved about the optics of admitting they weren’t going to make it (depression), and then finally, collaboration on a bold, new plan (acceptance). Once at the point of acceptance, the course correction was fast and involved getting a representative set of all the stakeholders in the room together to reset what was being done and by whom, and to make sure everyone understood what they needed to do to avoid being the only bank failing to hit the deadline. Averting the disaster required timely and decisive action.

Which brings us back to the current coronavirus outbreak.


Few believe the outbreak can be contained anymore. While response times varied wildly, most leaders, epidemiologists, and other medical professionals worldwide are on to Plan B. That includes some combination of ‘flattening the curve’ by slowing down the spread from country to country and within communities, keeping the public informed about how to protect themselves and others, ramping up testing and diagnosis, reassuring people that in most cases they can expect flu-like symptoms, doubling-down on the search for treatments and vaccines, and so on.

A clear plan, communicated well, with instructions on what to do and what to expect — co-created by aligned national, regional and local leaders, researchers, epidemiologists and other medical professionals — that’s what we need from our leaders at this time. Not denial. Not anger. Not bargaining or depression. But acceptance and decisive action; a firm hand on the wheel. Anything less than that and we will fare worse than we should.

For your organization, now facing the reality of closed offices, employees’ kids stuck at home, interruptions in every facet of day-to-day business, urgent projects on hold, dramatic losses of revenue mounting, volatile markets, and still accelerating uncertainty - you must lead with decisive action, a clear plan, and excellent communication.

And when we’re through it, you must be ready with a clear plan, communicated well, covering:

  • How we will transition back to our new normal
  • How we will recover from the damage done
  • How we will apply what we learned to be better during ‘business-as-usual’ times, and during exceptional times.

Start thinking now about how you’ll be ready with that plan for decisive action at the defining moment when this is over.

Lastly, view the weeks ahead as an opportunity to learn about yourself, your leadership team, your company’s operations, communications, and culture, your customer relationships and your ecosystem. In the words of Italian Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis”, in this case, to get better.

Original article was posted in Forbes on March 17, 2020

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