Leadership During COVID-19

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post for the ALSC blog titled, ‘Leading Toward a Shared Vision and Common Purpose.’  I cited Richard Harwood’s book, Stepping Forward: A Positive Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives, for finding hope through common purpose and collective action. This call to step forward and find authentic hope is even more relevant in today’s pandemic-changed world.

COVID-19 has been an extreme test of leadership across the country, causing even the strongest and most seasoned leaders to begin dreaming of early retirement. The library world is no exception. How can we be the kind of leader our teams need during so much uncertainty and change? What leadership skills and traits are most beneficial in these trying times?

As a new library director (7 months in!), I’ve consulted many resources for ‘crisis leadership’ advice. Providing strong leadership for our teams is especially important as we pivot from reacting to COVID to proactively planning for the future. I’ve found five recurring themes in sources on leading during difficult times.

Crisis Leadership


For many, the idea of a strong leader is someone who always puts on a happy face, even through challenges and difficulty. However, avoiding any elephants in the room may cause more stress for your team and feel to them like ‘collective gaslighting.’ While we want to stay calm and positive for our teams, it’s also okay to acknowledge authentic feelings of uncertainty, stress, and worry and to allow your team space to express these feelings as well. As Kristi Hedges writes, “When leaders can normalize the anxiety nearly everyone is having, it takes away some of its power and frees up energy spent trying to maintain a perfect image.”[1] It’s also okay to not know all the answers, and to admit that to your team. Be transparent and truthful, yet also provide as much information, direction, and strategy as possible to alleviate anxiety and rekindle optimism for the future. As Gary Burnison states, “Uncertainty breeds conjecture, escalating fear and causing chaos. No matter how serious the news, people prefer certainty. Counter fear with facts and hope.”[2]


In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott lists ‘ruinous empathy’ on the opposite end of a continuum from ‘radical candor,’ with extreme empathy leading to ignorance and radical candor leading to growth.[3] Yet, others recognize empathy as essential for connecting and supporting a team. Along with truthful, authentic leadership that acknowledges and normalizes stress, times of crisis also demand compassionate leadership to provide support for our teams. Hedges argues that during a crisis, support must be obvious and, “…explicit and underlined rather than implied.”[4] Mary Mesaglio notes that to be a trusted source during a crisis, leaders must be portray both honesty and empathy. [5] Burnison writes, “To be there for others and truly listen, you need emotional intelligence – especially empathy.”[6]  He continues that leaders who build ‘an emotional connection on a very real and human level in every interaction – and especially in a crisis,’ are more likely to gain trust and empower their teams to take action. He states, “What matters most is not what the leader achieves, but how people are empowered to act.”[7]


Harwood encourages leaders to have the courage to step forward tempered with enough humility to know that we don’t have all the answers.[8] Burnison further defines humility in leadership as, “…the grace that constantly whispers, ‘It’s not about you.’”[9] Like a mixture of candor and compassion, a combination of courage and humility is essential to effectively lead during times of uncertainty- looking to experts for information and looking to your team for help moving forward, especially staff on the front lines of public service. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explain both by saying, “Admit you need your employees’ help and ideas to get through this…. When employees know their managers are seeking better ways during tough times, and encouraging them to practice the same, it builds trust and a larger culture of optimism.”[10]


Burnison writes that, “Communication is where leadership lives and breathes,” and promotes listening at least twice as much as we speak.[11] Listen and allow a safe space for your team to provide input and feedback. Michaela Kerrissey and Amy Edmondson suggest that leaders need to avoid a natural tendency to, “downplay and delay,” during a crisis, and should instead engage in honest communication and decisive action.[12] From listening and gathering input, leaders can make informed decisions and motive a team toward collective action that reflects both candor and compassion. Burnison concurs, stating, “Listen, learn, and then lead – in that order.”[13] They continue, ‘As a leader, you’re not a priest in the confessional,” but instead, “a combination of psychologist and mentor, with the goal of helping people identify problems, decide on solutions, and take actions. Listening to others should lead to their empowerment.”[14]


Successfully leading during difficult times requires exceptional levels of commitment: commitment to the team, to a shared sense of purpose, and to decision-making that inspires change. Along with humility, steadfast loyalty and commitment to our staff reinforces a sense of team and solidarity during crisis. Commitment to shared purpose also unifies a team and keeps everyone focused and motivated by goals for the future. As Burnison writes, a leader’s primary role is to ‘embody purpose in words and action’ with strong conviction, “…inspiring others to believe, then enabling that belief to become a reality.” [15] In addition to commitment to purpose, leaders must convey commitment to decisive and collective action. Burnison also argues that clear commitment to decision-making builds confidence and certainty for our teams during times of crisis that, when lacking, can lead to ‘organizational paralysis.’[16]


Robert Glazer writes, “There are two types of leaders in a crisis, the Blamer and the Unifier. The Blamer constantly flails to address the various challenges they are faced with every day and is always looking to place blame when things go wrong. The Unifier has a clear purpose and strategy, communicates it well to others, and keeps the team focused and unified.”[17] It takes a strong combination of candor, compassion, and courage to be a Unifier, along with clear communication and steadfast commitment to a sense of shared purpose and collective action. In these difficult times, I’m following advice from Harwood and finding hope through, “…the importance of stopping to listen, of having the courage and humility necessary to show up, to make those tough and intentional choices, and to remain open to new ideas.”[18]

Today’s blog post was written by Krista Riggs, Library Director at Madera County (CA) Library on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee.

This blog relates to ALSC core competencies of VI. Administration & Management Skills and VII. Professionalism & Professional Development.

[1] Kristi Hedges, “Leading During COVID: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say,” Forbes, July 9, 2020, accessed online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2020/07/09/leading-during-covid-what-to-say-when-you-dont-know-what-to-say/?sh=1fa832ad1346

[2] Gary Burnison, Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2020), 48.

[3] Kim Scott, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019).

[4] Hedges, accessed online.

[5] Mary Mesaglio, “4 Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption,” Smarter with Gartner, March 19, 2020, accessed online at https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/4-actions-to-be-a-good-leader-during-covid-19-disruption/

[6] Burnison, 68.

[7] Ibid, xiii.

[8] Richard Harwood, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path for Transform Our Communities (Greenleaf Book Group, 2019).

[9] Burnison, 3.

[10] Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, “How to Remove Fear from Your Work Culture,” in Leadership in a Time of Crisis, (New York: Marshall Goldsmith 100 Leaders, 2020): 66.

[11] Burnison, 39.

[12] Michaela J. Kerrissey and Amy C. Edmondson, “What Good Leadership Looks Like During this Pandemic,” Harvard Business Review, April 13, 2020, accessed online at https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic.

[13] Burnison,  74.

[14] Leadership U, 70.

[15] leadership u, 40.

[16] Leadership U, 25.

[17] Robert Glazer, “How Capacity Building Will Help,” in Leadership in a Time of Crisis, (New York: Marshall Goldsmith 100 Leaders, 2020):  61.

[18] Harwood.

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