It is an axiom that leadership matters in a crisis. What is perhaps less considered is what kind of leadership is needed.

In a critical situation leadership is essential to ensure action is taken to prevent worse consequences – that much is straightforward. In the regular course of life there are innumerable tame problems that require tackling; these require leadership and might be difficult but have been done before. 

Wicked problems, according to the Leadership Centre, are complex problems that hold a multitude of other problems within them and have no known solution. These are the situations where good leadership is essential, as they are often not best dealt with by a command and control solution, nor are they always resolved swiftly. 

Leadership can fail when situations are miscategorised. To take, for example, the current COVID-19 crisis: this is a wicked problem and not a critical problem, and within the overall situation are other nested problems, each of which may themselves be wicked, tame or critical. 


The pandemic requires a wide range of people to contribute to leadership, and an awareness of the many facets of this crisis and their consequences. This is neither best tackled solely by command nor by doing what has been done before.

By way of illustration, the lack of PPE requires in part a critical response: something is not working so it needs to change otherwise people will continue to die. However, while a complete overhaul of the procurement and distribution system has been necessary, that isn’t all that has been required; also needed is an acute awareness that saying there is enough PPE isn’t sufficient if those who need it don’t have access. A problem is not solved when the person making decisions says it is solved, but when those most affected know it has been.

Second, as the tragic level of daily deaths starts to ease there is increasing pressure on the Government to relax lockdown restrictions. It is becoming clear that while there may be some changes in the coming weeks, these will be gradual, and it will be a long time until we experience many facets of life in the way that we used to. There have been two competing calls on the Government: to inspire and to calm people in the face of this crisis, and to give them the truth. These are not always easily co-existent, and politicians are caught between seeking to reassure the public and telling them about the dangers. 

There is clearly a view in government that the public will respond to messaging that the lockdown is starting to lift in a way that could cause the rapid resurgence of coronavirus cases. This is similar to the hesitancy in March to introduce a lockdown too soon because it was believed the public would tire of restrictions and so they needed to be implemented when most evidently needed. 

What kind of leadership is required?

Leading well requires attentiveness to the relationships that are essential if leadership actions are going to be effective. In a command and control critical situation relationships might be able to be side-lined temporarily, but without them leadership will suffer. You have to trust in a person giving commands to follow them time and time again. Truth and trust in leadership is paramount.

Leadership is not only about influencing people towards action. As noted, this crisis does have a critical command aspect: take action to ensure people do not die. But, arguably, more significant is the influence aspect: ensuring that everyone takes action to ensure people do not die. None of this is possible if we do not trust the people in authority. 

In his book Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger looks at the story of Lewis and Clarke and their expedition to find a water route across the US in the early 19th century. It’s a relevant book for these times, as the primary premise is that in unchartered terrain, a different form of leadership with different skills is required. (As an aside, it’s worth considering what new leadership is now needed for our world and how, as Christians, we can provide that leadership.) 

The following quote from Bolsinger’s book illustrates the importance of trust in leadership: As they watched and worked with the captains in a variety of challenging experiences, they saw their leaders present a competent and unified front. The men of the Corps of Discovery experienced their leaders as constant and caring, and congruently so in every context.”

Constant, caring and congruent

Constant, caring and congruent – let’s take these in turn. First it is important to be constant in our leadership and in our actions. Bolsinger notes that competence on the map provides credibility to lead off the map. Leadership isn’t about appearing the moment a crisis arises and claiming to have all the tools for the job. It’s about demonstrating that you have a constancy and a commitment to the course that is evidenced by your actions. 

Second, we must care. One thing that has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout this crisis is that we value those who care. Whether this is nurses and doctors in hospitals, care assistants looking after the elderly, or neighbours doing an extra batch of shopping for someone who is particularly vulnerable in their community.

And congruent. This means that it all fits together, that there is an integrity in a person’s actions. A congruent leader is constant in their actions, and cares for those they are leading and those they are serving, and this is never just for show. This is the aspect of leadership that has been undermined too often in contemporary society. Leaders have been shown to not be congruent and exposed as too often performing when the cameras are rolling but not living the same way when they think people are not paying attention. 

This doesn’t mean that leaders never change. Leaders who are constant, caring and congruent are always growing, but they grow in a way that develops and learns rather than jumping from one trend to another or swinging in different directions because of what might make them popular. 

The phrase following the science’ has been used frequently during this crisis, and it is both helpful and a cop-out. It is helpful because it demonstrates that there are times when policies should change because situations and evidence changes. Good leadership identifies these changes and helps lead people through them. It is a cop-out because it suggests that scientific evidence removes the need for political judgement. Leaders recognise the evidence around them but also accept ownership for decisions. 

Leadership is about influencing people towards action, but it is also about taking responsibility for that transformation. Leadership is required and leaders know that their actions have an effect and therefore they carry a responsibility. 

As an Evangelical Alliance we are passionate about developing Public Leaders, we believe our leadership should be for the glory of God and the good of society. You can find out more here.