Who will guide us now? Leadership in times of crisis by Darren Dalcher

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People often lament the qualities and capability of their leaders, political, civil, religious or otherwise. Indeed, they are regularly viewed with what has become known as the three D’s of leadership—doubt, distrust and dissent. Yet, in times of uncertainty, turbulence and crises, we crave the control and order that come with formal leadership structures and willingly submit to their authority. How can we explain the sudden switch?

Drucker Forum 2020

Wakeup call

A crisis is a wakeup call. Crisis situations are extreme because they threaten our very survival, creating an overwhelming urgency to resolve them. Even more so, when the crisis is both ubiquitous and constantly emerging as it unfolds and plays out at full speed in a social media infused world. The current pandemic has shaken many of the foundations and deeply held assumptions underpinning society, economy and government.

The unique power of a crisis is in making the familiar shatter almost instantaneously.  Ian Mitroff observes that beyond the immediate harm wreaked by a crisis, there is a more insidious impact with an existential component, where all the important assumptions, the notions of what might be safe and the deeply held models become invalid all at once.

Crisis impact

The impact of a crisis can be likened to a rogue wave striking a ship in deep seas; sudden, spontaneous and significant. When the going gets tough, we pray for a reliable captain and the safety of a well-sheltered harbour, but the pandemic has turned things around, shuffling up our traditional playbooks. The response to the crisis has witnessed a near continuous stream of urgent and unexpected mini-projects; characterised by immediate decisions, plans that must be enacted in a matter of hours – or minutes – and an immediate reversal of our conservative aversion to risk taking and abolition of an excessive reliance on speculative business cases.


The results have been nothing less than spectacular: In our haste to respond to the emergency, we uncovered new abilities to work together, to collaborate and to achieve the impossible. The radical shifts that normally define transformation appear to have been mastered by society: Hospitals built in ten days, new vaccines in circulation within a matter of weeks, education systems moving online at the switch of a button, and significant changes to all forms of human interaction, communication and collaboration. Rather than find our new leaders for times of crisis, we rediscovered a new society ready can band together.

Drucker famously observed that ‘the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic’. Perhaps it is high time to rethink the logic of leading. Crises can uncover heroes, allowing new leaders to emerge; and the new heroes, it appears, are more people just like us. ‘Ordinary’ foot soldiers including nurses, doctors, orderlies, drivers, and other front-line employees bravely stepping forward to grab the helm, support, enable and maintain organisations, networks, supply chains, customers, employees, the most vulnerable, whole communities and society at large. Ultimately, John Parenti’s advice to ‘treat this crisis as practice for the next crisis’ may offer a pragmatic way of preparing for the next cadre of emergency leaders awaiting their turn. Leaders in times of crisis must henceforth be prepared to embrace the emerging logic of tomorrow, in order to avoid the empty promise of yesterday.

Darren Dalcher is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University Management School, UK. His most recent book is Leading the Project Revolution: Reframing the Human Dynamics of Successful Projects (Routledge 2019).

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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