Leadership and the COVID Pandemic

Growing up in Reykjavik, Katrin had dreams of being a surgeon or a rock star. Preferring to spend time on her own, and with a love for reading, Katrin could be found with her head buried in an Agatha Christie novel. Her passion for the written word culminated in a Master's in Icelandic literature.

Katrín’s early career saw her work in broadcast and print media, publishing, and academia. Growing up with left-wing political beliefs, Katrín’s foray into politics began in environmental activism, demonstrating against a hydroelectric plant in the east of Iceland. She then joined the Left-Green Movement and, by 31, she was a member of Iceland’s Parliament.

You might have guessed by now that the Katrín in question is Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland. Under her leadership, Iceland was the first country in the world to introduce pay-equity legislation, requiring companies to show they pay women and men equitably.

Jakobsdóttir is one of several women world leaders being heralded for their stewardship during the COVID crisis. Others include Angela Merkel (Germany), Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Halimah Yacob (Singapore), and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand).

So far, we haven’t told you much you don’t already know, other than the Icelandic Prime Minister’s penchant for crime novels. Over the last month, the media has been reporting on women, leadership, and COVID-19. Arwa Mahdawi’s piece in The Guardian on April 11th is one such example: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Coronavirus: Women.

On March 23rd we launched a survey to dig into leadership during the pandemic. We wanted to explore the behaviors and actions of organizational leaders, the types of decisions they were making, and how they were self-managing during this crisis. The survey ran until April 9th, an elapsed period during which the majority of US states issued lockdown orders, Congress passed the historical $2 trillion stimulus package and the worldwide death-toll from COVID reached 100,000.

We heard from 233 leaders. Of the sample, 68.24% was comprised of the following five industries:

  • Technology and telecoms (17.17%)
  • Professional services (15.45%)
  • Financial services (14.16%)
  • Consumer (11.16%)
  • Energy, Resource, and Industrial (10.30%)

The majority were senior executives (41.63%) or executives (39.06%) with middle managers (8.15%) and managers (11.16%) making up the rest of the survey population. Of our population, 43.72% described their gender identity as female, 52.81% male, 2.17% non-binary, and 1.30% preferred not to say. The majority of our leaders, 56.22%, were aged 35-44 (31.33%) or 45-54 (24.89%).

So what did we discover about leadership during the pandemic and did we find any differences based on sex?


A lot has been written over the last few months about what it takes to lead effectively during this pandemic. This is in addition to decades of research on crisis leadership. Decisiveness and the type of decisions leaders make are key to effectively navigating a crisis.

Our leaders reported a stronger propensity for making evidence-based decisions (79.4% making such decisions often to always) than decisions based on intuition (67.38%). Leaders were more prone to make decisions in collaboration with others (75.4%) than on their own (60.52%). Complex business decisions (67.83%) and decisions that could impact people’s livelihoods (67.38%) were made frequently by about two-thirds of our population.

While there was no difference between men and women in evidence-based decision-making or collaborative decision-making, on average, a higher percentage of women reported frequently making complex business decisions and decisions that impact people’s livelihoods than men. Furthermore, women, on average, were less frequently making decisions independently or intuitively than men.

Amongst our sample, 66.52% of leaders agreed or strongly agreed that they were leading decisively, with no sex difference. However, women leaders reported a higher propensity for leading with agility (72.72%) than men (62.29%).

When we think about the hallmarks of effective decision-making during a crisis they include:

  • Making decisions swiftly but not myopically. In a crisis, leaders are confronted with lots of unknowns and uncertainty. Leaders need to keep a helicopter view, map all the interconnected pieces, and avoid knee-jerk responses.
  • Agile decision-making. In a crisis, new information emerges often and swiftly, by the hour, by the day. What we thought we knew on Tuesday can be turned on its head come Wednesday. Leaders need to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the situation, assess risks and threats, and balance attending to the present with shaping the future.
  • Consultative decision-making. During a crisis, successful leaders draw on experts and involve key stakeholders in decision-making. They do so inclusively and at pace. The pitfalls of isolated, singular decision-making are clear. Numerous studies have demonstrated the Dunning-Kruger effect, the cognitive bias which leads people to overestimate their abilities. With a small amount of knowledge, people make the faulty assumption that they are experts in a given domain. In a crisis, leaders can experience cognitive lock-in, the tendency to stick with their first decision. The effectiveness of their judgment can be impaired by strong physiological reactions. All this points to the need to make decisions in partnership with others and for leaders to have people around them who can challenge their thinking. This can mitigate overconfidence.

Of note, while the women and men in our study were equally comfortable taking accountability for decision-making, 77.05% of men said they were confident about their decisions versus 65.34% of women. Given that the men in our survey were more likely to make independent and intuitive decisions, was that confidence or overconfidence?

Information Sharing and Collaboration

As noted above, leaders need a trusted council around them during a crisis. Beyond that, keeping people informed and updated helps to reduce ambiguity and misunderstanding. The more informed employees are, the less likely they are to write their own narratives. Information sharing and collaboration align people in their roles, expectations, and priorities.

We asked leaders how often they were talking to their different stakeholder groups (direct reports, their broader team, peers, their boss(es), clients/customers, board members, and external partners) to problem solve, keep them informed, and get updates. On average, respondents engaged most frequently with their direct reports daily (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Frequency (%) of interaction between leaders and their direct reports in response to the pandemic

In order of frequency of communication, next came:

  • Peers
  • Boss(es)
  • Broader team
  • Clients/customers
  • Board members
  • External partners

Except for Board members, women reported engaging more frequently than men with all their stakeholder groups. Interestingly though, when we asked leaders about how well they thought they were engaging with others, on average, men rated themselves more positively on these dimensions:

  • I’m proactively sharing information
  • I’m keeping people well-informed
  • I’m collaborating effectively
  • I’m confident my team are clear on their expectations

Trust, Understanding, and Compassion

There are endless definitions of leadership but the common denominator is followership. Leadership requires the commitment, belief, trust, and willing partnership of the people for whom you have accountability. Successful leaders build psychologically safe cultures as a matter of course and lead authentically, empathetically, honestly, and inclusively. They don’t wait for a crisis to do this.

We asked respondents how the people they work with would describe their leadership during the pandemic. Highest rated was trustworthy (75.54%), then compassionate (72.54%), and transparent (67.82%). Lowest rated was empathetic (64.38%). Men rated themselves higher, on average than women on trustworthy, compassionate, and transparent. The biggest difference was on transparent. 73.77% of men agreed or strongly agreed they would be described by others this way versus 64.35% of women.

Respondents were asked to rate the extent to which the way they were leading was helping their team feel:

  • Better about their well-being
  • Clearer on their priorities
  • More confident about the future

Of the four characteristics, empathy correlated most strongly with ‘better about their well-being’ (r=0.63, p<.001). Trustworthy correlated most strongly with ‘clearer on their priorities’ (r=0.55, p<0.001) and transparent with ‘more confident about the future’ (r=0.55, p<0.001).

Women leaders rated themselves higher than men, on average, on helping their team feel clearer on their priorities. Men rated themselves higher, on average, as helping their team feel more confident about the future.


There is a reason when you are on a plane that you are told to put on your own oxygen mask first. Leading in a crisis needs resilience. Leaders must look after their own well-being so that they are at their physical, mental, emotional, and psychological best to support others. We wanted to know what leaders were doing to invest in their self-care. Figure 2 shows the rank-ordering of well-being activities based on frequency.

Figure 2: Rank order of frequency of well-being activities

Just over half of the respondents (54.51%) thought they were investing enough in their well-being (59.02% of men and 52.47% of women). Conversely, 45.49% of leaders were not in agreement that they were taking care of themselves.

Investing in one’s wellbeing correlated significantly with being seen as empathetic, compassionate, helping others feel better about their well-being, showing positive leadership qualities, and leading as well as other leaders. Correlation is not causation, but there is evidence of a relationship between self-care and desirable leadership attributes.

While leaders were generally positive about their leadership, fewer than half (48.50%) felt confident about the future. When we explored the toll that leadership was taking on them, 57.67% reported being tired, 56.21% anxious, 51.07% overwhelmed, and 47.21% useless at times. We wondered whether the leaders that reported these negative attributes were the same leaders that were expressing self-belief and pride in their leadership? Were they showing vulnerability by reporting that they were both leading effectively while also struggling? For the most part, that wasn’t the case. There were no significant or sizeable correlations between the negative attributes (e.g. “I’m overwhelmed”, “I’m anxious”) and the positive expressions of leadership (e.g. “I’m proud of the way I’m leading”, “I’m leading as well as other leaders”).


There is no silver bullet to leading successfully during a crisis but we were curious about respondents’ top priority for leading during the pandemic. Figure 3 shows the highest priority was ensuring people’s well-being. The lower priorities were given to thinking about the future and innovating. This finding is consistent with other studies of the pandemic. Leaders have been more focused on navigating what’s in front of them than attending to longer-term vision or exploring new business possibilities.

Figure 3: Ranking of priorities for leaders during the pandemic

While the same priorities appeared in the top three for women and men, they were ordered differently. The top priority for women was ensuring the well-being of their team/people. For men, it was providing clear direction.

The priorities, to some extent, mirrored the free-response comments. We asked leaders what they were most proud of about the way they were leading through the pandemic. The most common theme was leaders’ concern for and investment in the well-being of their employees. Here’s an example:

“We are taking a people-first approach. We have video-called every person in the department just to check in. It took three days. Exhausting, but demonstrates we care.”

The second theme was remaining calm, followed by staying positive and hopeful about the future. Then we saw comments about regularly engaging with the team, keeping people informed and updated and leading proactively and decisively.


If we were generating a profile of leadership during this pandemic, based on our survey, it would be: A collaborative yet clear leader who keeps their team and peers well informed, is comfortable and accountable in making decisions, and who leads with compassion and trust. Overall, leaders were most positive about their investment in the well-being of others, their information-sharing, and the quality of their decision-making. Leaders reported the lowest scores, comparatively, on their self-care.

It’s worth noting that this crisis is different from other crises leaders may have faced such as 9/11 or the 2008 financial meltdown. It’s distinctive in the combination of its scale, risk to life, the nature of its disruption, and the conditions under which employees need to work. Despite that, about three-quarters of our respondents (74.68%) told us they were confident leading their business through this crisis.

The good news is that organizations and employees need leaders at the helm they can trust and rely on to navigate them through the scary, stressful waters of this crisis. This will be important for recovery too. Decisiveness, trustworthiness, setting clear expectations, sharing information, and keeping people well-informed are the profile of a leader that employees want to follow. In our study, these qualities all correlated significantly with “I am confident in my ability to lead the business through this crisis.”

But confidence can be double-edged and tip quickly into overconfidence, especially in the height of a crisis. It manifests as assumptions, over-indexing in one’s rightness, fixed perspectives, and riskier decision-making. Research exploring financial crises2 has shown that banks with overconfident CEOs were more likely to weaken lending standards and increase leverage than other banks before the crisis, making them more vulnerable to the shock of the crisis. During crisis years, they generally experienced more increases in loan defaults, greater drops in stock return performance, and a higher likelihood of CEO turnover or failure than other banks.

We can’t determine conclusively whether the respondents in our survey were being confident or overconfident in their leadership. This was not an empirical study. We have no independent measure of workplace leadership effectiveness to validate their self-reported perceptions. That said, a clue into leaders’ state of mind comes from the free-text comments in response to the question, “How have you fallen short as a leader during the COVID pandemic?”

By far the biggest, single cluster of comments, accounting for 37.38% of all comments was: I haven’t fallen short as a leader. This may indicate that leaders are lacking self-awareness, which is contributing to their sense of confidence/overconfidence. For comparison, the next biggest theme, with only 10.28% of the comments, was: A lack of self-care or self-management (feeling tired, stressed, anxious, reacting emotionally).

Leaders need to build systems around them to manage against overconfidence:

  • Surround yourself with a strong team that challenges you and brings diverse perspectives.
  • Set up a crisis-cabinet and a recovery-cabinet so you are not making decisions in isolation.
  • Keep a holistic, 30,000-foot view of the whole picture. Use your strategic skills to see the links between events, information, and issues as they unfold.
  • Draw on external expertise.
  • Deepen your awareness about the way you are leading: Run a tracker engagement survey, routinely ask for feedback from candid stakeholders, ask a loved one outside of work what they are noticing about your behavior.

What about the way women and men are leading during this crisis?

We started this article talking about the approach of women world leaders and their handling of the pandemic. Did we find evidence to support this? Yes, and no. We found, on average, that the women in our survey reported leading with more agility, more strategically, engaged more frequently with the majority of their key stakeholder groups, and were less likely to make decisions intuitively or independently. That said, these differences were not statistically significant.

The significant differences we found were on the items below, where men were more positive about their leadership than women:

  • I’m empowered to make decisions
  • I’m keeping people well informed
  • I’m collaborating effectively with others
  • I’m confident about the future

To our earlier point, we have no way of knowing about the actual effectiveness of any of the leaders in the survey, since we had no measures of leadership capability or any success outcomes. Secondly, we need to reinforce that differences in leadership are mostly explained by individual differences, not categorizations such as sex. Meta-analyses are showing that when we account for context, company practices, opportunity, and so forth, men and women are more similar in terms of skills and attitudes than long-held myths and stereotypes have perpetuated3.

What’s important for recovery and for responding to the next wave of COVID or a new virus, is that we do the thing that humans are notoriously bad at doing – we learn. Across industry, sector, and geography, the lowest-rated items on our High-Performing Team survey are, “We learn from our mistakes” and “We take time to understand our mistakes.” Leaders and organizations need to learn from the likes of Angela Merkel, Tsai Ing-wen, Halimah Yacob, Jacinda Ardern and other effective leaders, women or men, to understand the qualities they demonstrated that made them more successful in navigating the crisis.

Finally, our rallying cry to every organization is to analyze and collectively debrief your efforts and approach to leading during this crisis. What did you do well and why? In what ways was your response ineffective and why? Based on your learning, how can you improve your response?