Ministerial Leadership in Times of Crisis
This is part of a weekly series of briefs on Ministerial Leadership in Times of Crisis developed by the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program in the hope of being helpful to the many ‘alumni’ and associates of the Program at the forefront of the current global crisis.
Week 1 - Leadership in Times of Crisis
Ministers play a critical leadership role in times of crisis as they need to ensure public confidence in the government and its leaders, while planning and directing an effective response. The advent of the novel coronavirus is an enormous global crisis and threatens every country on a variety of levels. The challenge for Ministers will involve keeping populations safe, calm, and cooperative. There is also an opportunity for Ministers to act proactively and demonstrate sound leadership. Below are some key pointers to support ministerial leadership through this period of crisis:
1. Know what you are dealing with: Collect all relevant data, take time to review it, and ensure you have a clear picture of the situation. Time is of the essence, but hurried action can lead to missteps so take time to ensure you have the full picture. This can be a scary step, but it is important to drive decision making, communication, and effective stewardship through a time of crisis.
2. Continuously evaluate the situation from the balcony: Maintain a high-level view of the situation and, while it is likely necessary for you to dig into the details with your team, always ensure you are able to see the big picture and use it to inform your decision making. Regularly return to ‘the balcony’ to ensure you are always aware of the context in which your decisions are being made.
3. Be an active listener and communicator: Listen to the advice you want to hear and the advice you do not want to hear. Often unpopular advice is the advice most worth hearing and considering as a leader – whether or not you decide to take it. Similarly, be a calm, honest, and positive communicator with your team and with your general population. If you choose, designate a single person to be the key point of communication so that a relationship of trust can be built with that person. Given that ‘social distancing’ strategies are likely to be part of your plan to combat this virus, effective communication will be critical to mobilizing collective action and implementing your strategic plan.
4. Stay flexible to deal with this as an adaptive challenge: The situation may change rapidly and often – you cannot be married to a single strategy. At some point you may not have optimal data to inform critical decisions. You may also realize that an initial course of action did not have the impact you hoped. Continuously review the most current data, assess trends, and be humble enough to change course and/or to admit mistakes if needed.
5. Collaborate: You are not in this alone. Work together with your fellow Cabinet Ministers, but also feel free to reach out to your Harvard Ministerial peers and resource members from other countries to learn from their approaches or advice.
Week 2 - How to Communicate Effectively
Effective communication during a crisis is always necessary, but it is of particular importance in battling COVID-19 because public engagement and compliance are crucial. Leaders have a principal responsibility to communicate truth and facts, dispelling myths and misinformation. Accuracy and consistency are essential to establishing public trust and confidence in the credibility of their leaders and the message. Effective communication is an essential part of the effort to combat the pandemic and should not be coincidentally regarded or casually executed. Below are a series of steps that can be taken to ensure you have an effective communication strategy to underpin your country’s pandemic response:
1. Develop a strategic communications plan tailored to your country’s needs: A clear organizational communication plan is critical to ensuring people have the facts, understand their situational risk, and are educated about measures to curtail infection. Identify the objectives of your communication strategy based on your country’s situation, community knowledge, and response priorities. For each objective, identify the key audience that needs to be targeted, decide on the most appropriate ‘messenger’ for the target audience, as well as the channels to be used (consider the use of social media, influencers, and other alternatives in addition to traditional media). Also consider the role of various stakeholders like churches, mosques, trade unions, etc. Determine the financial and human resources needed to sustain the communication effort over many (6-18) months. Review the available information, education, and communication materials from the World Health Organization and other credible organizations and adapt them to your needs (see links for potential resources below).
2. Coordinate to ensure optimal national coverage and public awareness: Establish coordination mechanisms to allow for rapid communication at local, regional, and national levels across different sectors, ministries and civil society. Develop a communications flowchart mapping the principal points of communication contact across the country to ensure optimal national coverage and message filtration to the remotest communities. Ensure that communication is occurring in both directions, i.e. you are able to spread your message, but also able to hear what is happening outside of your own ‘bubble’.
3. Monitor the impact of your efforts: Because the battle against COVID-19 will require sustained effort over many months, it is important to monitor through on-going public research the impact of government messaging on different communities’ knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions, with a specific focus on high-risk populations. Rapid qualitative assessment tools to obtain this information can be found here. Take note of characteristics that can strengthen or hinder future communication efforts, e.g. communication patterns and channels, language, religion, or influencers. Be on the lookout for misinformation and rumors so that they can be quickly refuted with facts. Accuracy and consistency are essential to the plausibility of your message. Monitor the objectives of the strategy and their outcomes to track impact and ensure progress or motivate course correction where needed.
4. Trust your instincts as a leader: You are going to have to make hard decisions in the coming months about how and what you communicate with your people. Can effective communication persuade the level of community action you need or is a more rigid ‘lockdown’ enforcement necessary to coerce cooperation? Is it worth sugarcoating the situation to keep people calm or highlighting the risks to motivate adherence to the restrictions? Keep telling people what you need them to do and what may be coming next so they are ready to adjust with your guidance. Validate their feelings of resistance, anxiety, stress, and fear with your own. Be honest about what you do know and sometimes about what you don’t yet know. Oftentimes, messaging can be more impactful than the decisions that are being messaged about – so choose your words wisely and allow the humanity in you and your government to come through.