Leadership in the time of COVID-19

I work as a leadership coach for leaders in small to large organisations; public, private, and various non-profits.

Recently, during this very challenging time for us all, the nature of these conversations (now all by phone/video chat) has pivoted to a common struggle that these leaders face.

While they are dealing with their own personal situation and circumstances, they must also help their employees deal with the very same fears and uncertainties.

I have been struck by the distinct differences that my clients are facing, in terms of resources and help.

Those who work for large substantial institutions have resources (e.g., human resources, corporate communications) that they can utilise to help them deal with the inevitable questions coming from employees. There are professionals dedicated to providing advice, messaging, and tools to assist.

Whereas clients from smaller organisations (perhaps a dental office with 10 employees) simply do not have access to the internal resources of their large organisation peers and they are having to figure things out on their own. The risk is immense for these individual small business owners.

Collectively, these small business owners represent a huge impact on the economy, driving up the stakes for all of us. Retention and recovery of small businesses are vital to our future.

As a small business owner, I have found my thoughts turning to what can be done to address the lack of resources reflected in those small business leaders’ needs.

I have had numerous conversations over the last two weeks, and I listened carefully as each shared their concerns and their ideas.

I then undertook assembling our collective ideas and comparing them with current literature.

There are many excellent articles being written about leading through the COVID-19 situation.

A quick search on the words, “leadership” and “COVID-19” will lead you to a long list of articles and advice from the likes of Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Gartner and Gallup, to mention a few.

The purpose of this writing is to tie a few of those ideas to my clients’ concerns with a focus on small business leaders who are quite alone and in need of help.


Under any circumstance, communicating effectively and frequently is important, but in a crisis, it is essential and simultaneously challenging.

In a conversation with a client who leads a small company of 300, we discussed his greatest challenge.

He wants to offer facts, assurance, and empathy to his employees, while not over-committing and misleading them. He expressed concern that he simply didn’t know the “facts” and was reluctant to share very much.

The concern of having to be correct in facts and details is common. No one wants to say one thing one day and then change the next.

However, when a situation is so fluid, withholding or not saying anything is simply a standard one cannot hold to. It seems best to follow a few simple principles:

  1. Be truthful and honest with them. Present your comments in a manner that is conditioned to the situation, not apologetically, but with empathy.
  2. Be vulnerable about your own feelings and don’t be afraid to say you share their concerns.
  3. Attend to how you communicate in terms of your style and language.
  4. Remain present and in touch, especially if you are operating in a virtual context.
  5. Be realistic about what is clearly in your control and focus on those areas.
  6. Establish a regular cadence, if possible. Even brief “huddles” can be effective.


You are not alone, even if you have a small business of 20 people or less. Your organisation is full of individuals who also likely have very practical ideas on dealing with some very real issues that you may be carrying by yourself. Empower others and let them help you.

Innovation is often more critical in times of crisis than normal times. Don’t underestimate the power of those you trust enough to employ.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to individuals beyond your organisation to gain perspective, get ideas, or just have a sounding board.


None of us know yet how long this pandemic will last, but if you share my view, there will be an “after” and business owners will still need employees. Find creative ways to pay attention to them even if you have been forced to furlough them.

It is not likely that you will be able to retain them all if this lingers too long. But remember that they may have difficulty finding new jobs and you could still be a good option at a future date. Paint a picture of what your intentions are once you are on the other side of this crisis.

Personal resilience

Personal resilience is a cornerstone of leadership success, perhaps the most important, and it is no less true for small business owners.

Fundamentally, individual leaders must take care of themselves along with their organisations. Surround yourself with mentors and advisors. Exercise and follow good nutritional practices.

I do hope you share my belief that we will come out of our current situation, even if it means waiting a bit for us to adjust to a “new normal.”

Greg Clark, Ph.D., is an executive coach and team development consultant residing in Georgetown, Texas, and a member of the GBAC Scientific Advisory Board (SAB. He can be reached at greg@coachcentric.com

This article first appeared in ISSA Today and has been republished with permission. 

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