Leadership in
times of crisis

New theories in the psychology of leadership shine a light on what makes for an effective leader in times of crisis.

Generic leadership image of woman giving a presentation to office

Image: Adobe Stock/Jacob Lund

Image: Adobe Stock/Jacob Lund

Some world leaders have been more successful than others in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this context, effective leadership has motivated people to work together to minimise the threat that the virus poses.

But what makes for an effective leader?

The answer, according to UQ School of Psychology researchers Professor Alex Haslam and Dr Nik Steffens, can be found in "the new psychology of leadership".

Professor Haslam noted that the new psychology of leadership was the result of two decades of research into the dynamics of social identity, and is detailed in the award-winning book of the same name.

“The traditional view of leadership sees this as an exercise in command and control, and treats those who are led as passive vessels, whose natural state is one of ignorance and indifference,” he said.

“This approach has a long history in fields of psychology, management and political science.

“In contrast, an alternative approach sees leadership as a group process that centres on a psychological coupling of leaders and followers as a unit in which all parties see themselves as having shared interests and concerns. This is effective when all members are engaged in the process of striving towards shared goals.

“This coupling is especially important in times of crisis — when it is important to secure widespread group adherence and engagement, through a process of internalised shared responsibility.”

A woman giving a presentation to a room of people

Dr Steffens said leaders were found to be most effective when they engage in "identity leadership".

“Identity leadership involves creating a sense of shared social identity – or a sense of ‘us-ness’ – in the groups one leads, and then working to represent, advance, and embed that sense of shared social identity through policies and actions,” Dr Steffens said.

“Effective leaders are those who capture what is special about ‘us’ by embodying what 'we’ stand for.”

Dr Steffens said this could be seen in the way many national leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One prominent example has been [New Zealand Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern’s ‘we’re all in this together’ approach to leadership during the pandemic,” he said.

“Her empathy with the community was evident in the way she gave press conferences from her living room. She presented herself as a regular New Zealander, who was dealing with the same challenges as other citizens.

“Contrast the success of New Zealand’s coronavirus response with that of the UK – where [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and [former chief adviser] Dominic Cummings created the impression that the rules for leaders were different to those for everybody else.

“The differences in COVID-19 infection rates between New Zealand and the UK speak to the fact that prototypically is far from a trivial determinant of leader outcomes.”


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

12 lessons for leadership in a crisis

Professor Haslam and Dr Steffens identify 12 key lessons for leadership and crisis management, based on a framework for leader education and development.

3D illustration of leadership success business concept rocket paper fly over color background lead rocket stand out of other paper rocket follower

Image: Adobe Stock/whyframeshot

Image: Adobe Stock/whyframeshot

1. Focus on achieving power through people, not power over them

The paternalistic imposition of power is the antithesis of leadership because it alienates people and casts them as opponents rather than allies. As a result, it dampens enthusiasm and fuels resistance.

2. Recognise groups as the solution, not the problem

Much received psychology casts groups and their psychology as a source of problems. While it is important to avoid "groupthink", which results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making, leaders must still "think group" and work to establish critical group norms.

3. Unlock people’s capacity for strength

One of the first things to surface in a crisis are stories about human weakness. But disasters tend to reveal the opposite — that when united by a sense of solidarity, people are (or at least can be) rational, civic-minded and strong.

4. Build shared identity

Social identity is the key resource that leaders need to build and tap into in order to mobilise the support and energies of others. Hence, the sense that "we're all in this together" is critical to leaders’ appeals to the public and to their success.

5. Treat people respectfully

Social identity is not just about what leaders say but also about what they do. Leaders need to treat people as in-group members and understand that actions that create social identity fault lines will harm their leadership.

6. Define in-groups inclusively

Pre-existing social divisions constrain leaders' ability to promote the sense of a united "us". In the face of these, they need to engage in particularly vigorous identity leadership to eclipse the previously dominant sense of "us" and "them".

7. Appreciate people’s differing needs and circumstances

Leaders need to put in place policies and structures that allow people to have the lived experience of equity. This requires them to recognise that any crisis affects different groups of people very differently.

8. Be empathic rather than punitive

Policies need to be informed by empathy for others' plights. This is no less true when they fail to adhere to relevant guidelines or to "do the right thing" — situations in which it is tempting to dish out blame, criticism and punishment.

9. Provide ongoing support to those who need it

It might seem obvious that leaders need to provide support when and where it is most needed. But, for a range of reasons, they often fail to do this — in part because they fall back on narrow definitions of their in-group.

10. Focus on achieving outcomes that people most value

A lot of research suggests that groups need charismatic leaders to help them through a crisis. This is true, but research suggests that charisma is not something that leaders have, rather it’s something they acquire when they help groups to deal with the material problems they face.

11. Prepare groups materially and psychologically for a crisis

Communities respond more adaptively to a crisis and recover more quickly if they go into it with a lot of "social identity capital". If leaders have eroded this then they put their groups at a huge disadvantage.

12. Focus on developing identity leadership rather than acquiring a leader identity

In a crisis, leaders often invest a lot of energy into the process of ensuring they are seen as a leader. This often interferes with the primary task of looking after the group you lead in the ways outlined above.

Contact details:

Professor Alex Haslam

UQ School of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences

Email: a.haslam@uq.edu.au Phone: +61 7 3346 7345 Web: researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/1946

Dr Nik Steffens

UQ School of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences

Email: n.steffens@uq.edu.au Phone: +61 7 3346 9555 Web: http://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/2864