“I KNOW THAT I KNOW NOTHING.” This observation, loosely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, raises a host of questions: What can you do when you know if not nothing, then not enough? When you are a public leader responsible for the well-being of a community, how can you best serve people? What should you do when the stakes are high but you have little knowledge to guide you?

With the coronavirus pandemic, the world is experiencing an unprecedented and long-lasting public health crisis that has left almost no community untouched. Leaders must make crucial and time-sensitive decisions that affect the lives, health, and economic well-being of the people in their communities, but they must do so with limited information. In these conditions of uncertainty, decision making is a challenge even for experienced leaders. How can leaders decide when to open up schools and businesses? What should they take into account?

Harvard Kennedy School faculty members offer advice for decision making in times of uncertainty—from the practitioners who have managed crises during stints in government to behavioral scientists who can provide insight into how emotions affect choices. Faculty members have reached out to inform and counsel public leaders and policymakers in the United States and across the world though Zoom videoconferences, blogs, opinion pieces, and podcasts reaching hundreds of participants—in addition to the lessons they provide to the internal Kennedy School community through courses, special teaching sessions, and community conversations like the Dean’s Discussions, a series of talks over the spring and summer that focused on the coronavirus and included a session on race and the pandemic.

The HKS faculty has shared a wealth of diverse evidence-based ideas about leadership during times of crisis and how leaders can be effective even under conditions of extreme uncertainty. This knowledge should give public leaders hope.

Technical versus adaptive

One way to think about the COVID-19 crisis is as an adaptive problem. Ronald Heifetz, the King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, developed a framework—known as adaptive leadership—that is used around the world.

Heifetz distinguishes between challenges that are technical and those that are adaptive. Unlike technical problems, adaptive problems often require that people develop new capacities. They are frequently generated by novel and unpredictable challenges, and usually no clear-cut approach to solving them exists.

“When a problem is technical—when it is a known problem for which we can engineer a solution—we can design a critical path from point A to point B and be pretty good at sticking to that path to get to where we want to go,” Heifetz says. “But adaptive problems—such as the coronavirus pandemic—do not have that kind of certainty and predictability, and that puts enormous pressure on authorities to do the impossible: to resolve the uncertainty quickly and restore people to their normal lives. That’s one of the major reasons why we see a lack of leadership from people in authority positions: It’s dangerous to disappoint people. Authorities are under tremendous pressure to treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.”

According to Heifetz, the crisis is making two key properties of adaptive change very real.

First, he says, we need people to step up and practice leadership throughout society to mobilize adaptive work, from the micro level of families, to people within organizations pulling together to seize new opportunities or sustain revenue, to every level of government—from local to national—as it is managing through the crisis, decisively solving its technical components and generating adaptability. Heifetz says, “We need people to lead just because they see the need to take the initiative, without waiting for the coach to call them into the play, without waiting to be appointed, elected, or hired—pulling together whomever they can reach to face into our collective challenges creatively and together.”

Second, we need trustworthy authorities who will figure out how to gain, renew, or repair trust on an ongoing daily basis so that they can then “provide the critical coordinating mechanisms of action and can educate people with the daily emerging truth, with its uncertainty, so that people can engage in the work that only they can do—the ongoing and changing adjustments they have to make.” In Heifetz’s view, the pandemic is teaching us that meeting this adaptive challenge requires shared responsibility, shared losses, and widespread innovation in every family, business, schoolhouse, nonprofit organization, and government office. “Building new capacity to meet an adaptive challenge often requires widespread behavioral change,” he says, and “leading from positions of authority requires titrating hope and despair daily, to buffer the losses while also engaging people realistically, because the losses need to be worked with and cannot be avoided.”

Heifetz believes that the coronavirus crisis is giving us a shared global experience that is generating billions of adaptive efforts—some unsuccessful, but many encouraging—from which we can learn much, both for this moment in the pandemic and for other challenges that will demand adaptive change.

Without a clear path, Heifetz says, leaders need to improvise and take corrective action often; this is the nature of adaptive work. “Leadership is an improvisational art,” he says. “You may have an overarching vision—that’s the easy part. The hard part is reading a changing reality and pacing the work so that your people can adjust and innovate in their lives and organizations at a rate they can absorb.”

Illustrated faces with A and B dialogue bubbles.

“Be honest. Empower people with facts. And be modest and give yourself the space to pivot when you need to.”

Matt Andrews

Like many other faculty experts, Heifetz emphasizes the importance of trust: “There are bonds that hold a community together. Bonds of trust, bonds of affection, bonds of affiliation, bonds of mutual identification, that enable us to stay in the tough conversations against the divisive forces that would allow us to fly off into isolation.” According to him, these bonds are holding communities together.

Some elements of trust are hard: Public officials must acknowledge the difficulties that people face in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Heifetz believes that leadership requires respecting and speaking to the severity of losses in people’s lives. Delivering tough messages requires “an enormous degree of empathy, humility, and transparency,” he says. “Public officials need to learn to speak with an authoritative voice when the message is uncertainty … and when the only way through this is shared losses and shared responsibility for the welfare of the community. Public officials have to find a way to give the work back to their various publics with presence, heart, transparency, and decisive action, even if those decisions will require change.”

“Particularly in an era of widespread distrust of authority,” Heifetz says, “the mindset of authorities in the midst of a crisis needs to be a mindset of repair and renewal. They must tend to trust on an ongoing basis.”

Lessons for leaders in developing countries

Matt Andrews, the Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development, is the faculty director of the School’s Building State Capability program, housed in the Center for International Development. Andrews has created a blog series—Public Leadership Through Crisis—that offers ideas to help leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this blog, he shares insights from the Building State Capability program and from “problem driven iterative adaptation” (PDIA) methodology, which brings together teams of officials and stakeholders to identify complex problems and break them down into more-manageable components. 

Andrews’ work is focused primarily on developing and transitioning governments, but he notes that many of the countries he works with are struggling with the same questions and issues that government officials are facing in the United States. In an episode of the Kennedy School’s podcast, PolicyCast, devoted to this topic, Andrews observed, “Even if you don’t have all those resources, there’s an incredible amount that you can do by better authorizing people, by mobilizing and inspiring people.”

For a series spanning several weeks, Andrews spoke with policymakers and public leaders in developing countries that do not have robust institutions to handle a public health crisis. He held Friday Zoom sessions—most of which drew 50 or 60 people from around the world—to talk through the nuts and bolts of leadership as the crisis unfolds in real time. “If ever there was a time when leadership matters, it’s now,” he says.

Andrews has been sharing a few takeaways with leaders. Most people he has spoken with have basic questions about what the public health response should be. “We don’t have a lot of resources, and we don’t have a lot of tools to throw at this,” he says. “So the public response everywhere has been to observe social distancing to try to stop the spread.” Leaders who begin this earlier, Andrews says, will have more tools to work with. To be effective, they should communicate well, mobilize people to be on their side, and manage the politics of the situation so that societies are unified rather than fragmented.

What should leaders do when they communicate with their constituents? Andrews suggests, “Be honest. Empower people with facts. And be modest and give yourself the space to pivot when you need to.” He adds that being calm and reliable is equally important.

In addition to communicating effectively, leaders need to organize people well. In times of crisis, Andrews says, leaders often tend to “circle the wagons” and gather small teams around them. But a command-and-control approach, working through a rigid hierarchy, is often too brittle to be very effective. He says, “We found that actually most organizations—and this is in keeping with the literature—do that for a week, do that for two weeks, and then they actually find that things start to crumble.”

How emotions can sway decisions

Julia Minson, a social psychologist who studies conflict, negotiations, and judgment and decision making, has tips drawn from her research for leaders communicating in times of crisis. Minson, who is an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, is particularly interested in the “psychology of disagreement”—that is, how people engage with opinions, judgments, and decisions that differ from their own. She observes that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused conflict and become a source of argument, with people debating what is factual. “A lot of the things we have been observing, for example, with the climate change debate are happening again,” she says. “There is a set of scientific and medical facts, and all of a sudden, people are finding reasons to debate them. You have people who are deeply, passionately committed to a particular set of values, to a particular set of perspectives, that are backed by facts and data. And they absolutely cannot communicate with people who don’t see the world the same way they do.”

Minson also believes that many leadership challenges are communications challenges. “A level of buy-in is required,” she says, because the pandemic necessitates a great deal of voluntary cooperation from the public to observe social-distancing measures. “So the question becomes, ‘How can we communicate in a way that garners that cooperation around an issue that has become partisan and conflict-laden?’”

Her advice for leaders is to understand that it is OK to pivot if facts on the ground change and you have evidence that suggests a new course. Leaders might worry that they will come across as indecisive, but studies suggest that they will be seen as better decision makers and as more competent (if less confident) leaders. “What people are looking for right now are competent, thoughtful decision makers,” Minson says. “And when you change your mind in the face of evidence, that’s exactly how you’re seen.”

She and her colleagues have developed a “recipe” to help people communicate better in conditions of disagreement and have built an algorithm that identifies words and phrases that can make people on the other side of a conversation feel understood. “They are not rocket science,” she says.

These communication tips include acknowledging the other person’s point of view and finding common ground. “There’s almost always something in common,” Minson says. “In the current situation, both people want to get through this as quickly as possible, or both are very concerned about the implications for the economy, or both recognize that kids have a very hard time when they’re out of school for a long time. So finding agreement means reaching beyond the current conflict and looking for some very basic things that we as humans can agree on.”

Minson also advises against using the language we tend to adopt when we want to win arguments. She says that “linguistic markers of debate”—the words because, therefore, and actually, for example—can sound condescending. If you are careful with your word choice, she says, other people will feel that you are listening to them rather than trying to force your own opinion on them.

Leading through crisis in practice

Wendy Sherman provides a few overarching principles of leadership that she has observed and learned through her experiences in government. Sherman, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, was the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks with Iran that resulted in a nuclear agreement in 2015. She also led talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration. Now she serves as a professor of the practice of public leadership and the director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.

Sherman says that the pioneering leadership studies scholar Warren Bennis offers a good sense of the qualities needed to lead in uncertain times. Bennis, she says, “talked about a leader having a guiding vision, having passion, hope, and inspiration” along with integrity, candor, maturity, humility, curiosity, and “daring wonder.” Sherman believes that trust is also both a product of and a requirement for good leadership: “It’s not something that just exists. It’s given in that contract between people.”

She also draws from a model of leadership used by the U.S. armed forces, summarized as “Be–Know–Do.” Leaders should embody certain virtues and character traits, such as integrity. They should possess certain capabilities, including interpersonal and technical skills. And they should act.

Sherman  emphasizes that leaders benefit from knowing when to pivot in a crisis. “No leader can corral all the forces necessary to get to a perfect solution in the first instance,” she says. “We are all interconnected. Viruses know no borders. But the solution is to be apart. And for leaders to figure out how to bring people together by telling them to stay apart is a very difficult thing to do. So we all should be somewhat generous to our leaders, because they’re all going to fail at some level. And what a good leader does is learn from that failure quickly and be able to pivot.”

The Kennedy School teaches policy design and delivery concepts that are crucial in making sound leadership decisions, Sherman points out. The principles that students learn in their courses and in practical experiences like the first-year MPP Spring Exercise—which this year focused on responding to COVID-19—can help in understanding the complexity of crises, in making decisions on the basis of evidence, and in communicating clearly. But in addition to the core interpersonal and technical skills that leaders need to do their jobs, and that the Kennedy School teaches its students, context matters a great deal.

“The context for this crisis is perhaps one of the most immensely difficult that any leader anywhere in the world has had to define,” Sherman says. “It is, quite frankly, more difficult than the 2008–2009 financial crisis. It is even more difficult than the aftermath of 9/11.” It is also more challenging, in Sherman’s opinion, than the Ebola crisis, which unfolded while she was serving at the State Department. “This is going to go on for a very long time,” Sherman says. “And the uncertainty of what’s ahead—the unknowingness of what’s ahead—requires tremendous humility on the part of leaders.”

Illustrated hand selecting one viewpoint represented by eyes.

“What people are looking for right now are competent, thoughtful decision makers. And when you change your mind in the face of evidence, that’s exactly how you’re seen.”

Julia Minson

Like Sherman, Juliette Kayyem has handled crises in practice. Kayyem, the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security, has been an active voice on crisis response during the pandemic. Along with her colleague Dutch Leonard, the George F. Baker, Jr. Professor of Public Management, Kayyem has frequently contributed to a series of sessions over the spring and summer for mayors and city leaders managing the pandemic’s fallout. The sessions were a collaboration between the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Coronavirus Local Response Initiative and were hosted by Jorrit de Jong, the faculty director of the initiative and a senior lecturer in public policy and management. Each Zoom session attracted hundreds of mayors and other urban leaders. In the first of these videoconferences, Kayyem drew on her experience as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. During her tenure, she was involved with the federal government’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Kayyem observes that in crisis situations, leaders must clearly communicate the information and data they have, even if that information is limited. “It’s just honest,” she says. “That’s all you have got: numbers and hope.”

Three essential tasks for responding to crises

Although the COVID-19 response sessions themselves were open to city leaders only, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative has posted takeaways and insights on its website. These tools for crisis management and crisis communications target local leaders, but they are valuable for anyone in a leadership position. Among the takeaways are three leadership tasks crucial to responding to a crisis (drawing on the work of Leonard, Kayyem, and de Jong, as well as Arnold Howitt and David Giles from the Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership):

  • Assess where you are in the life cycle of the crisis with as much accuracy as possible. This will inform how you allocate your attention and activities and organize the work.
  • Establish a problem-solving process for a novel threat. Routine emergency management processes will not be sufficient for responding to this crisis, which will require rapid integration of new (and incomplete) information, learning on the fly, and nimble reactions to emergent issues.
  • Understand the political aspects and identify risks to be managed so as to keep order, secure and retain support, and create the conditions for effective collaboration under extreme circumstances.

Like the military model “Be–Know–Do,” these three tasks emphasize using available knowledge and evidence and drawing on a problem-solving skill set to address a crisis, even when much is uncertain.

Although few surefire answers can be found to the questions that emerge in unprecedented crises like the coronavirus pandemic, leaders can take some basic actions to arm themselves with the best knowledge possible—using lessons from the adaptive leadership model and from problem-driven iterative adaptation, from practical crisis management experience and expertise, from decision science and more. From pillars of the community to mayors to heads of state, leaders should listen to expert opinion, communicate clearly, and mobilize people to act. Kennedy School experts show that even under conditions of uncertainty, leaders can use a wealth of tools and skills to make wise, informed decisions.

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