Leading others in a time of crisis

Leadership in a pandemic is a precarious thing. If you trawl through history books, you will find that the adage that history repeats itself is a truism. The world has been confronted by pandemics before, albeit in different contexts and not one on this grand scale in our lifetime. There has long been a common thread among leaders in the face of adversity: act decisively, communicate effectively and remain calm. In the last three months or more, there have been several articles analysing the leadership styles of various leaders and public figures. 

We know that when there is a crisis, decisive leadership for the public good is imperative. In the face of tsunamis, terror attacks, famines, floods, cyclones and other such events, it is the aftermath which reveals the true mettle of leaders. In a thought-provoking piece, Peter Slagt, David Michels and Melissa Burke from Bain and Company explain that leadership in a crisis requires a reframing of how we think. 

As the piece explains, the effects of a highly stressful time, such as a global pandemic, manifests itself in physiological symptoms. The amygdala, or the part in the brain that deals with emotions, in a sense takes over our cognitive system responsible for analysing behaviour, which results in panic, or a “fight, flight or freeze” response. This response has been recorded in humans since prehistoric times. It is, in simple terms, how we survive, particularly in the face of danger. As the authors rightly point out: “Left unchecked, this instinct can have a severe impact on job performance in times of crisis, compromising safety, quality and productivity. And it can lead to dysfunction as well, triggering issues like absenteeism, attrition and even violence.”

There is a fundamental disruption not only to our lives but to our sense of control. This is what has to be at the crux of our response as leaders. How best do we mitigate the effect of this? We are facing several unknowns emanating from an invisible threat. No one could have predicted that this is where we would be halfway through the year. Three months ago, we anticipated a three-week lockdown, now we know that this will continue to be our new normal for some time. Although the lockdown is being eased in some instances to mitigate the impact on the economy, this virus may be with us for months, even years. 

Those of us in positions of leadership have had to be cognisant of this to create workable alternatives. In 2018, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her book Leadership in Turbulent Times, the stories of four United States presidents, with a particular focus on how they were affected by adversity and how they overcame this to improve the lives of others. At the time, many dismissed her foray into leadership studies as a pseudo-scholarship akin to the many texts you would find in a self-help aisle. Yet, her narrative has proven to be pertinent in our current context. 


Goodwin profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson who had vastly different backgrounds, abilities and temperaments. They also faced vastly different challenges ranging from the civil war, the civil rights movement to World War II. Yet, through a shared sense of morality and authenticity, they were able to lead through turbulent times, much like the ones we find ourselves in now. 

As Goodwin puts it: “There was no single path that four young men of different background, ability and temperament followed to the leadership of the country.” 

This is an important reminder as we face what may look like our insurmountable obstacles. These leaders were undoubtedly flawed, but in a crisis were able to act. As David Greenberg in The New York Times put it in a review: “We can benefit from reminders that even flawed mortals can, in times of national emergency, achieve great things.”

If one had the time, an analysis of military strategy provides insights into leadership. One could say, for example, with this Covid-19 pandemic, that many countries have had to manoeuvre, plan with military precision and execute strategically. Although this might be perceived as leadership, there is a distinction between well-executed plans and actual leading. Leaders are often faced with conundrums. For example, allow the economy to go into a slow decline, knowing that unemployment will rise, jobs will be lost, and businesses will be closed or open up the economy and society in the face of an unknown threat that could overburden our healthcare systems and claim the lives of many. 

The saying, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t” holds true. Our response to the pandemic and the swift shift to a national lockdown has been hailed by international bodies and touted as a model to be emulated. This is not to say there have not been missteps along the way. Yet, what would have happened if we had chosen the alternative? 

Whether one is a president, vice-chancellor or CEO, these conundrums have to be faced with bravery, courage and, importantly, conviction. As a vice-chancellor, at the helm of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), in a crisis that we could not have imagined, each day requires complex decision-making, compassion and the overriding need to fulfil our mandate. 

Parallel to the pandemic, we have entered a new era: the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Although we have long been on the cusp of the 4IR, it is safe to say our current circumstances have hastened this shift. This, of course, has allowed the university to test out our response. As John F. Kennedy once said: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” 

Since the first rumblings of Covid-19, the UJ, has been agile, responsive and continuously aligning itself with national strategies. UJ had a business contingency plan that kicked into action at the onset of the pandemic. Resources have been redirected to ensure that the core business of teaching and learning continues remotely along with a realigned academic calendar. Given the history of our country, a blended learning model is appropriate as it takes into account the unique circumstances of the learner. Students have accessed learning platforms such as Blackboard and uLink, which are valuable resources for both staff and students for teaching and learning remotely. Our academics have disseminated short videos, Zoom calls and WhatsApp communication with our students, for instance. 

“What does this narrative say about leadership?” you might ask. Among several lessons, one that stands out is the ability to act swiftly in the best interests of all, review, evaluate and redesign when required. This has not been without vast challenges and difficulties. For one, working remotely, grappling with technology and juggling multiple balls in the air is no easy feat, particularly while the university continues its journey with no clear map because of the unpredictability of the disease. More worrying have been the concerns about access to technology. Data, Wi-fi and access to smartphones at the very least are necessities for a complete transition online. Yet, this sadly is not a reality for many students who are often the first in their families to go to university and who already face other economic challenges. 

Although this has been addressed in the short-term, albeit with hiccups such as ransomware attacks on Telkom that saw a delay in the distribution of data, there needs to be a view towards long-term solutions. As a university, we cannot begin to solve problems that are deeply entrenched in our society. The inequities of the past, the present and the future of our broader community persist. 

Whereas the media bandy about terms like “the digital divide”, our focus has to be unpacking what that really means. The digital divide is rooted in our poor socioeconomic environments, high unemployment rates and an unequal economy.  In the face of these insurmountable problems, a university has had to contend with discharging some of its responsibilities to students while dealing with these extraneous factors. We have had to be creative and reassign resources to reach out to students.   

Yet, universities have always had to be agile and responsive without losing their position as producers of knowledge, thought leaders and hubs of intellectual activity. Higher education institutions remain crucial for engaging in meaningful activity to contribute towards local, national and global debate. Universities should constantly review their strategic plans to ensure constructive alignment with a swiftly changing society. 

In South Africa, where there is rampant inequality and poverty, these institutions remain crucial as a knowledge base for many. And, as access to data and devices remains elusive for many, the traditional brick and mortar institution will continue to stay relevant.

We will continue to navigate this unchartered territory as we enter a new phase, where we gradually see the reopening of our university. The complexity of leading and managing the university in the coming weeks as we gradually begin to reintegrate will be a test of our planning abilities, as we seek to comply with regulations and contend with new challenges. Higher education, like all other sectors, should continue to step up with the required agility and flexibility, responding optimally to Covid-19 which might never disappear. 

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, and deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Tshilidzi Marwala
ProfessorTshilidzi Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg and deputy chairperson of the PC4IR.

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