Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership

Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership

Dennis Tourish | Leadership

Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership

Dennis Tourish | Leadership


This editorial introduction argues that the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership theory and practice. Decision making is particularly hazardous when we have poor evidence to guide us and face unpredictable outcomes. Mainstream leadership theories are of little help, since an environment of radical uncertainty means that leaders have less information, expertise and resources to guide them than is often assumed. Undaunted, populist leaders exploit uncertainty to suggest that simple solutions will work. I suggest that the responses of such leaders have been characterised by incompetent leadership, denialist leadership, panic leadership, othering leadership and authoritarian leadership. I also consider the implications of the crisis for business leadership, suggesting that already strained relationships within organisations are likely to deteriorate still further. Critical leadership studies has an important contribution to make in challenging self-serving theories of business that have come to guide much leadership decision-making. We have an opportunity to do research that really matters, and participate in vital conversations about how the theory and practice of leadership can contribute to better outcomes from the coronavirus crisis, and others still to come.


The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented. It is the first pandemic to strike with such virulence in modern times, when the world is more interconnected than any other time in history. It is extraordinary that a virus which began in Wuhan, probably in December 2019, could within three months sweep the world, bringing misery to millions and shuttering much of the global economy. While this is primarily a public health crisis, it is also an economic, social and political crisis. Its effects will be felt for many years to come.

Of course, plagues and diseases have afflicted humans throughout history, along with panicky responses, institutional failures, and stories of courage, wisdom and redemption. There is much here that is familiar. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977: 195–196) analyses measures taken to contain plague within a French town in the 17th century. His account, drawing on contemporary documents, resembles what we now call ‘lockdowns’:

On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting … ‘A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance’, guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, ‘as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion’.

But the scale of this particular crisis means that politicians, health service leaders and University chiefs are among those now being tested as few of them could have anticipated. This means that the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership. Firstly, it is a crisis of leadership practice. How are key decision makers performing, and what leadership systems, relationships and dynamics are producing good and bad results? Secondly, I suggest that it is a crisis of leadership theory. To what extent can leadership theories help us understand what is happening? Perhaps more importantly, to what extent can they point to approaches that leaders should adopt if they are to secure more positive than negative outcomes? These are among the questions that dominate this issue of Leadership.

Here, I approach them by considering the dilemmas that leaders face when confronted with evidence of an impending crisis. Most analysis of a crisis has the benefit of hindsight. Events seem more inevitable than they did when they occurred. But leadership takes place in an environment of radical uncertainty. We need to consider the consequences of this for political leadership, and particularly its effects on the rise of populist leadership. In addition, we have so far had little discussion about the implications of the crisis for business leadership. In addressing that issue, I flag the (ir)relevance of most leadership theories to the challenges that lie ahead, and suggest that the coronavirus crisis again shows the need for our scholarship to be more relevant, address big issues and become less introspective.

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Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership, Dennis Tourish, Leadership, Vol. 16(3) 1–12, 2020