Leadership during Covid-19

By Vickashnee Nair

What makes a person a leader is complex, especially during crises such as the one we all face at this point in history.

Why leadership matters now

In these times, leaders can seek to emerge, and those that have been longstanding leaders are tested. This goes beyond the obvious examples of presidents, ministers, and politicians; but to community leaders, pastors, celebrities, activists, managers, bosses, CEO’s, and many others. Leaders all hold positions of power and how each chooses to wield such power plays out in numerous ways.

This might be partially due to the idea that leaders depend upon their followers and how these followers define, and think about leadership (Felfe, & Schyns, 2010). One cannot exist without the other, one is the flame and the other the kindling with which to ignite it. Followers need to perceive their leaders as trustworthy, charismatic and transformational (Felfe, & Schyns, 2010).

Now more than ever leaders at the forefront of managing and addressing this unprecedented pandemic are being scrutinized by their followers. Every address to the nation by President Cyril Ramaphosa is followed by analysis and discussion. Commentators have critiqued decisions by leaders in the USA and the UK, noting how citizens, often poor and black, have been at the mercy of the decisions made by their leaders with regard to access to housing and healthcare. And when followers see their leaders become ill with Covid-19, they are reminded that we are all mortal and fallible. Boris Johnson’s ill health, and that of numerous celebrities, reminds us that the virus does not discriminate, and can make their followers feel anxious.

What kind of leadership do we need right now?

Leadership is a complex phenomenon and can mean such a variety of things. A useful definition is that it is a collective relational phenomenon that is “cultured” and situational (Kirk, & Shutte, 2004): it emerges in a specific context and time. This contrasts with notions of charismatic leadership invested in heroic individuals and ones usually in dominant hierarchical positions in a community or organizational system.

Presidents and leaders who feature regularly on social media and television screens offer one kind of leadership, but community leaders offer what has been called “distributed” leadership. This emerges through a process of dialogue, connectivity and empowerment: leadership within communities of different people who come together in collaborative endeavour (Kirk, & Shutte, 2004). Plurality and robustness of engagement are its hallmarks.

However, when there is a global crisis that faces leaders and people, there is a sense of urgency and immediacy and leadership efficacy tends to look very different as priorities drastically change. In this context it can be argued that there is a need for both charismatic, confidence inspiring leadership (it is seen as decisive), as well as elements of distributed leadership (it is seen as collaborative and inclusive).

What pressures do leaders face?

The response of people during a crisis is often to look to leaders to “do something” (Boin, & Hart, 2003). Leaders are often the face of pandemics, crises and periods of hardship for many: they can emerge as either heroes or scapegoats (Boin, & Hart, 2003).

As unease sets in, and there is a growing sense of vulnerability, people often look to something (or someone) to help with such uncontainable feelings. As a leader, the pressure to react in an authoritative manner to such anxieties of people is quite formidable (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). Citizens expect to be safeguarded by the state, and returned to a sense of normalcy (Boin, & Hart, 2003). Crises, or in this context a pandemic, are highly chaotic, and dynamic, fuelled by uncertainty and threat; which all significantly disrupt social, political and economic processes (Boin, & Hart, 2003). Something so labyrinthine poses a challenge to most leaders.

How should leaders respond?

How do leaders respond in ways that still maintain their status as leaders but allow them to adjust and be flexible during a pandemic?

What might be helpful here it to look at how leaders seem to perform against the expectations of the public. Discrepancies between expectations and performance have been explored by Boin and Hart (2003) and they seem applicable to the Covid-19 pandemic. One expectation is that leaders should put public safety first; however research has found that leaders often have to consider the economic and political losses of regulating and enforcing maximum safety (Boin, & Hart, 2003).

This highlights how there are costs to public safety during a pandemic: in order to prevent spreading of the virus and to ensure the safety of its citizens South Africa has enforced a lockdown that has severely limited movement and activities across the board. This has come at the cost of social lives and income for business, has impacted on the economy negatively, and has changed the way schools and tertiary institutions have had to take the academic year forward. This all in hopes of achieving a greater good, albeit with sacrifice. However, it is often this cost that is hardest to adjust to, even though it is a means to an end.

This adjustment that has been a source of conflict between government and its citizens. There have been individuals who have attempted to go against this public health safety mandate: they have looted liquor stores, held wedding ceremonies with numerous guests, or tried to smuggle people in car boots across provincial lines (Grobler, 2020; Karrim, 2020; Maphanga, 2020). It is tempting to see them as “antisocial” but they illustrate how curtailments on freedom are a painful price to pay and not straightforward.

During a crisis there is also an expectation that leaders should be seen to take charge and provide clear directions for crisis management, apparently operating alone as the symbolic head of crisis operations. In fact, crisis operations often work through multiorganizational, transjurisdictional, polycentric, response networks, and there is lateral collaboration (Boin, & Hart, 2003). Evident here is a tension between appearing decisive, yet at the same time consulting widely. Perhaps what is needed is a blend of both these approaches.

Arguably, President Ramaphosa has approached decision making in the pandemic in this way. He has consulted with various sectors, stakeholders, experts and professionals before making pivotal decisions (Evans, & Cowan, 2020). He has shown collaborative leadership, working with others to make decisions that impact on the whole country. While this seems to fit in with ideals of community leadership, there is a sense of an individual who is able to steer a firm and decisive course.

What then emerges is an approach to crisis leadership. Crisis leadership is a specific response during critical situations like a pandemic. Competent crisis leadership has two stages: the emergency phase, and the adaptive phase (Heifetz et al., 2009). In the emergency phase the leader undertakes to stabilize the situation and buy more time, and in the adaptive phase they need to respond to uncertainties of the populace (Heifetz et al., 2009). It would seem we still find ourselves in the emergency phase as we attempt to stabilize our country and buy more time – South Africa, like much of the world, still finds itself in lockdown and under stringent restrictions. As these need to shift, the test for President Ramaphosa will be how he leads during the adaptive phase.

What is an effective leader right now?

Drawing on the work of Kerrissey and Edmonson (2020), there are a number of steps that a decisive crisis leader may need to take: acting with urgency, communicating with transparency, responding productively to missteps, and engaging in constant updates. All seem to highlight how imperative it is to communicate, respond with speed, and react with productivity and practicality. Similar sentiments are found in a study by Wooten and James (2008) on leadership competencies during crisis management. The following emerged: signal detection which involves making sense of the situation; empathy with those impacted; prevention and preparation which includes agility; and containment and damage control which encompasses decision making under pressure; and learning and reflection (Wooten, & James, 2008).

Looking at all of this holistically an image of a leader during hardship emerges: someone who is able to work collaboratively, get the best information possible, engage in thoughtful planning, execute well, act decisively and inspire confidence. It is an almost impossible task and no one person every gets it completely right!

What does all this mean to me?

As previously mentioned, leaders are not always powerful presidents, statesmen, or politicians, or even the people whose faces light up screens across the world. Beyond the form of leadership we want from someone like our President, as explored above, all of us can offer more humble forms of leadership in our everyday interactions and more localized spheres of influence. This has caused me to reflect upon my own leadership role professionally.

I have recently started a job at the CSA&G, one which has required me to take on a leadership role with the Just Leader programme. This is a volunteer and leadership development programme for students at the University of Pretoria. It builds active citizenship in student leaders and promotes social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices.

The programme has been a prominent one at the Centre and its alumni have taken the work into their personal and professional lives. It was a daunting task to work with and manage students as I had never been placed in a position of leadership before, and it was a learning curve for me each time I walked onto campus.

Through interactions with each volunteer, I began to get a sense of each person, their personalities, their stories and their voices. This helped me get to know the programme better and see in vivo how relationships between students have thrived. This felt like a privilege and it has made me reminisce on my own experiences of being a student and my own development.

However, leadership comes with its own difficulties and growing pains. Being decisive and taking responsibility for others has not been easy. And the Covid-19 pandemic has made my role much more challenging. I was faced with anxieties of panicked students and students who felt “disillusioned with it all”. Students were wondering how they should proceed, and were worried about dangers of infecting or getting infected. This confronted me and made me question all my decisions. I had an inkling of how leaders at higher levels might have felt as they struggled to deal with this pandemic.

My colleagues in the programme and I had to make the difficult decision to delay all activities during the lockdown. We had to decide to be flexible about how we worked with students. We had to make our work and the mission of the programme translatable to students when we could not be in the same room as them.

Leaders have quite rightly been the focus of many discussions around this pandemic, as they have become its face. We will remember the faces of those who delivered national addresses, or who gave supplies to those in need, and those professionals providing lifesaving advice and information. They confronted us with the hard but necessary changes we had to make, even when they faced a backlash Leadership is not for the faint hearted.


My name is Vickashnee Nair and I am a 26-year-old Indian female originally born in Lenasia. I joined CSA&G as a researcher for the Just Leadership Programme in 2020. I have completed my Masters in Community Based Counselling Psychology through the University of Witwatersrand and I am working towards becoming a registered Counselling Psychologist. My interests include sexualities, gender, mental health, community and health psychology, and race. I have had experiences working in therapy and assessment in various communities, including the student population.


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Evans, S., and Cowan, K. (2020). ‘Ramaphosa to make ‘serious decisions’ about lockdown based on science, possible economic, repercussions’, News24, 9 April. Available at: (Accessed: 20 April 2020).

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Maphanga, C. (2020). ’21 arrested after 16 liquor stores looted in the Western Cape, Cele calls urgent meeting’, News24, 12 April. Available at: (Accessed: 20 April 2020).

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