29 Aug

Leadership in an Outbreak

As it spreads globally, the coronavirus is creating unique, if not unprecedented, pressures. Korn Ferry experts weigh in on how corporate executives can lead.

Korn Ferry experts believe the crisis and the recovery require a special blend of skills.

Our way of life had hit a brick wall. In the span of a few days, hotels and retailers from Los Angeles to Lucerne shuttered. Airplanes were grounded. Offices fell silent. Factories stood empty. Millions of people were suddenly thrown out of jobs with no prospects but a ton of anxiety.

As 2020 began, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was thought of as mostly a China-specific issue. If an organization didn’t have any China-based factories or customers, then from a business perspective, leaders didn’t have much to worry about. But by late February, people around the world were learning the meaning of pandemic and coming to grips with the potential health impacts of a virus that by early spring spread to more than 170 different countries, sickened more than a two million people, and caused more than 160,000 deaths.

Leadership in an Outbreak

The health statistics were arriving quickly, but stats quantifying the economic damage took longer to arrive. Clearly, the virus has cost organizations billions of dollars in lost revenue (potentially up to $1.1 trillion by the end of this year, by one estimate). The question has gone from whether the coronavirus will cause a recession to how deep one could be. But COVID-19 is causing far more than just financial damage. Leaders are scrambling to secure supplies, keep fearful employees motivated to work, and, in some cases, keep bold strategic plans that have been years in the making from falling apart.

Indeed, this is an unnerving test of corporate leadership. Combine that with the short tenures of many current senior leaders, and it’s quite possible that many of today’s top executives are even more unprepared for such a challenge. Korn Ferry canvassed its experts across the world on how leaders can help their organizations navigate all this. Here’s what they had to say.


It’s only natural: senior leaders, always under intense pressure from investors, may default to looking at the financial damage the coronavirus is causing or could cause. There’s good reason to be concerned, especially since the bottom-line toll has already been so large.

But employees don’t want to know how much the virus is costing the company; experts say workers want to feel they’re in the same boat as the boss. “People need to know that even though the leader is employed to manage and run a business, he or she is also a human being—someone that cares for them and understands what they are going through,” says Michael Distefano, president of the Asia Pacific region for Korn Ferry and a member of the firm’s Global Operating Committee. “The leader must lead from the front, exhibiting the values and behaviors they expect from the team.”

Leading from the front doesn’t mean being isolated, however. To be sure, for many leaders, one of the hardest things to do is to rely on the opinions and decisions of other people. But that’s exactly what they need to do in times of crisis, especially when the cause of the crisis is outside of their area of expertise.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *