Blog post

Leadership in a time of crisis: a lesson from history

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, examines the data-intensive approach of political leaders to communication during the coronavirus outbreak, and compares it with the language of their predecessors in similar times.

By Professor Keith McLay - 4 May 2020

A global crisis, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to reflections and ruminations on what constitutes effective leadership. There have been many examples of creativity, ingenuity and notably resilience at a local level, particularly within key sectors such as healthcare and the food supply chain, but inevitably attention has primarily focused upon prime ministers, presidents and governments. 

Conscious of that focus, executives across the globe have adopted the daily news briefing as a demonstration of resolute leadership and evidence of the government leading its people through the crisis.

In Britain viewing figures suggest that, albeit in varying degrees, we have become captured by the 5 pm (weekdays) 4 pm (weekends) briefing. The format has remained stable throughout the pandemic: a government minister, flanked by either one or two experts (typically scientists or medical officers or public health officials, although on one occasion eye brows were momentarily raised when the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, pitched up in combat fatigues), provides an opening statement followed by one of the experts running through a now familiar slide deck on the numbers associated with the suppression of the virus and then finished off by a Q&A with journalists. 

The hour or so is slick, systematic and ruthlessly dedicated to the numbers and percentages: the number of deaths, the infection rate, the percentage of public transport use, the number of hospital admissions, the comparability of numbers across the globe and so on.

Taking the analytical approach

There are benefits of accountability and transparency in this approach but history causes us pause for thought as to whether it constitutes effective leadership. 

Listening to the news conferences one cannot help but think back to the approach and leadership of Robert S McNamara, US Defence Secretary, 1961-1968, during Presidents Kennedy’s and Johnson’s administrations when the US involvement in the Vietnam War conspicuously intensified. 

McNamara arrived at the Pentagon at the beginning of Kennedy’s presidency from the Ford Motor Company, where he had been its first President from outwith the Ford family, and he brought with him a preference for a quantitative and systems analysis approach to policy and leadership. 

As the US became increasingly bogged down in Vietnam, with the committal of more and more troops, and determined to prevent the country’s fall to the Communist Viet Cong, McNamara become a familiar sight to Americans outlining his computer modelling, force requirement algorithms and number trends. 

The KIA acronym (killed in action) became the administration’s grisly benchmark and leitmotif which explained, according to McNamara, the path to victory.

It was not enough.  McNamara’s data might have been robust and it provided a measure of the war’s progress, but it did little to secure and retain support of the American people or indeed of service personnel. It ignored the importance of emotional intelligence, of humanity and of a purposeful vision on the other side. 

Oratory with humanity

Unsurprisingly, many Americans felt keenly the absence of the intimate crisis leadership of an Abraham Lincoln or a Franklin D Roosevelt; orators who could provide leadership not immersed exclusively in the data, the numbers and the percentages, but who could paint a picture of a better end after the war. 

Lincoln, commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863, at which with upwards of 28,000 casualties racked up the largest loss of life in one battle during the American Civil War, did not focus in his address on the numbers and statistics but rather immediately appealed to the nation’s history as “…conceived in Liberty…” and offered a peroration of purpose that after the war there would be a “new birth of freedom”. 

Similarly, FDR in his first inaugural speech in March 1933 at the height of the Great Depression with legions of Americans out of work and bankruptcies writ large across the country, eschewed econometrics and an analysis of the country’s economy and instead caught the zeitgeist of the restoration of confidence in his line: “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself —nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Like Lincoln, FDR’s leadership was focused on instilling belief.

Recognising endeavour

There are many other instances of such approaches to crisis leadership: McNamara, Lincoln and FDR simply provide a stark comparison. For Britain, Churchill’s oratory during the Second World War, whether it be his offering of “blood, sweat and tears” on becoming Prime Minister or recognising the contribution of the airmen during the Battle of Britain not through data but endeavour – “never in the field of human conflict was so much offered by so few”- provide a similar, if perhaps (now) hackneyed, example.

The government might believe the daily news briefing with its data download, its recording of facts, figures and percentages as an exemplar of leadership demonstrating progress in resolving the Covid-19 pandemic. 

History, however, suggests that this approach is partial; it is leadership by ledger, which has its place but ultimately falls short in convincing its audience. 

Government ministers would do well to consider those leaders from history whose insight into leadership provides a vision and purpose to a better end which captures the imagination and resolve of the people whom they seek to lead.

About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

View full staff profileView full staff profile