COVID-19: Why Leaders Lose Relevance During Crises

A crisis reveals more than the state of an organization, it also reveals the underbelly of leaders. It reveals the sensitivity and sensibilities of leaders as well as their capacity to handle pressure. A time of crisis is an unusual time when unexpected issues surface. Therefore, the demands are different from regular times and so are the expectations. The unusual situation mounts pressure on leaders with some of them quaking and quivering and eventually caving in by doing what is not characteristic of them.

How a leader handles a crisis can sink an organization faster than a leaking ship.  While poor leadership choices and actions may go unnoticed in good times, they are accentuated and amplified in times of turbulence because everyone is on edge and the situation is fluid. That may not only render a leader irrelevant but may also run down a company.

In a crisis, the first person a leader must lead is himself. He must travel to the future to determine how he wants the crisis to end. He must also determine in his mind how he wants to be remembered when the crisis is over. Does he want to be seen as one who proffered solution or the one who complicated issues? Does he want to be seen as the leader who helped the people or one who spurned them?

Why leaders lose relevance during a crisis

While it is not impossible to avoid sliding from relevance to irrelevance during a crisis, this is contingent on steering away from certain attitudes.

Demonstrating lack of intelligence

Central to the role of a leader at all times is problem-solving. A leader who does not solve problem is only one in name. As said by General Colin Powell, “The day soldiers stopped bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have lost their confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either is a failure of leadership.” What helps leaders to solve problem is critical thinking, a derivative of intelligence. In this data-driven age, to continually solve problems, leaders must have the capacity for logical and strategic thinking. Intelligence is especially required during a time of crisis and uncertainties.

Intelligence is the capacity for logic, learning, reasoning, and critical thinking. That means intelligence is not the domain of some special people, it can be developed by all. However, intelligence is not developed during a crisis. According to Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, the best time to prepare for war is peace time. The time to develop intelligence is before it is needed. Not only does preparation always precede performance, it always determines performance. Those who wait till they are thirsty before digging their well are likely going to die of dehydration. If a leader does not make upgrading his knowledge base and increasing his reasoning and critical thinking capacity a daily practice, he exposes himself to the danger of losing his relevance when crisis comes knocking.

Being or looking confused during a crisis

A time of crisis is naturally a time of confusion. The unusual situation throws everything out of order and everyone out of their familiar territory with everybody looking up to the leader to show the way out of the turmoil. If the leader should join them to exhibit confusion, not only will he lose his relevance, he may also lose his followers. According to Napoleon Bonaparte, leaders are dealers in hope because they are saddled with the responsibility of assuring their followers that there would be light after the tunnel, not adding to their woes and sorrows.

Leaders trip into confusion when they are overwhelmed by the challenges posed by the crisis and thus pushed to their wit’s end to find a solution to it. That is why one of the critical factors in tackling a crisis is the intellectual capacity of the leader. To take his organization and the people out of a dire situation, a leader with a high level of intelligence will have a series of scenarios for the situation and the strategy to deal with each of them. He will have a scenario for a mild situation and what to do to mitigate its effect, there will be another scenario for a medium situation and how to manage it as well as the worst case scenario and how to contain the issue. With this in his bag, he cannot descend into a state of confusion because he knows what to do at any given time to redress or reverse the trend. But when a leader lacks the capacity to come up with such scenarios, he will be as confused as those he leads and he will end up losing their respect, losing their commitment and finally losing his own relevance.

Failure to show empathy

During a crisis, people are more important than both products and process. If a leader places either product or process above the people, he will end up losing his relevance. A crisis is like a war. It is impossible to fight a war without casualties. In a crisis, a good leader tries as much as it is within his capacity to preserve his people even if he is going to lose products or other resources. If he shows empathy for the people and he is sensitive to their feelings, no matter how the crisis ends, he will have his relevance intact and his people solidly behind him. But if a leader should make preserving the product or the process his focus while neglecting the people, he will most likely end up losing the product, the process, the people and his relevance.

Elon Musk’s gaffe


Right from the onset, Tesla Motors had enjoyed massive support from the American public just like its former Chairman, Elon Musk. American people were gung ho about the promise of improving life and living made by Tesla through its electric and driver-less innovation. This boosted its rating and its stock was one of the most valuable in the country.

But on May 7, 2016, a driver of Tesla Model S put his car into autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving.  However, the car’s sensors system failed to identify a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. The car attempted to drive full speed as the trailer crossed the highway. This brought the car against the truck with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the car. The Model S skidded off the road, killing the driver, though the truck driver was unhurt.

The fatal accident, the first involving Tesla’s autopilot, put the company on the spot. Until that time, Tesla had enjoyed favourable publicity from everyone about its driver-less vehicles because it was believed that one major cause of road crashes was drunk driving and that minimizing human involvement in the driving process was a way to reduce road crashes. The development ran contrary to the reputation Tesla was trying to build. This probably affected the CEO, Elon Musk, and he issued a statement in which he tried to play down the significance of the death and failed to take responsibility for the fatality, saying drivers who engaged the auto pilot device were supposed to take responsibility for their actions.

Musk’s insensitivity angered the public and he was castigated and described as ‘heartless’. It also impaired the performance of the company as its shares fell by 3.6 per cent.

Lacking courage

In a crisis, every second counts. The difference between victory and defeat or life and death oftentimes is a matter of seconds. Delaying in decision making during a crisis is as bad as failing to take a decision at all because that delay could cause irreparable damage to the team. Many leaders fail to take the right decision at the right time because they want to bring everybody on board. During a crisis, that is nothing but a demonstration of lack of courage. A crisis time is neither the time for consultation nor is it time for consensus building; it is time to take actions. Again, this has to do with the intellectual capacity of the leader. What will spur a leader to swing into action when he is face to face with a crisis is not what he is just going to learn about the crisis but what he already knows about similar situations in the past. That is why continuous learning is sine qua non to a leader who wants to tower at all times.

No one expected the 2013 Boston Marathon in the United States of America to turn bloody. But it did. The 25,000 people who registered to participate in the marathon and about half a million spectators were all looking forward to a wonderful time.  The marathon had started well with the elite runners finishing the course a few hours earlier. But as the other runners were getting set for the competition, a bomb detonated with a loud bang. Everybody screamed and scampered. Then the second one followed 14 seconds later with windows shattering and shrapnel flying everywhere. At that point, no one knew whether there would be more bombs. Disorder and confusion reigned throughout the area but what saved the day was the courage demonstrated by Jimmy Hooley and his team from Boston Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Without waiting for the police and the bomb squad to secure the place or instruction from the mayor or the governor, they moved in, ignoring the risk to their lives to take quick action. As a result, they were able to get the people out of the vicinity.

They separated the people by how serious their injuries were.  Those who could walk were encouraged to get themselves to the medical tent. With that, EMS responders were free to help people that were unconscious, incapacitated, or unable to walk. The responders also colour-coated the victims so that dispatchers would know which ones needed care the most and which hospitals were the best equipped to take care of specific injuries. Thus, within 18 minutes, all of the bombing victims had been dispatched to hospitals for proper attention. Although three people died, experts said if not for the immediate intervention of Jimmy Hooley and the Boston EMS team, scores of the injured would have suffered the same fate.

Crisis time is not the time for consultation but action.

Failure to create or add value

Leaders are honoured, celebrated and rewarded because of the value they create or add to their organizations and the people. Leaders are not only change agents, they are also game changers. They act as change agents and game changers through the instrumentality of the value they bring to the people. Through their insight and foresight, they bring the much needed change, especially during a crisis. Therefore, the worth of a leader is a coefficient of the value he delivers to those he leads. His relevance is tied to the value he creates. If he continues to deliver value, his relevance will be on the increase because value is magnetic; it draws people, power and affluence to whoever possesses it. But when a leader fails to deliver value, his worth plummets and his relevance nosedives. Therefore, creating value is critical to the continuous relevance of a leader.

Last line

Leaders who live up to their billing keep their relevance intact.

Written by PH

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