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Leadership Imperatives During the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 14, 2020 in

Authors: LTG (R) Bob Caslen, Dr. Donnie Horner, Rick Roper

Leadership and its connection to organizational high performance is one of HigherEchelon’s core competencies and greatest strengths. A large part of our success is due the team we have assembled which includes senior leaders who have successfully led large, complex, and very different organizations through good and bad times.

We believe high performing leaders armed with Imperative Values that are deliberately and consistently applied drive organizational excellence. Given the challenges associated with COVID-19 domestically and abroad, we thought it both useful and appropriate to outline how some of our most experienced leaders would approach current challenges. Our intent is to remain apolitical, solution oriented, and focused on useful, experience-based imperatives for handling leadership challenges associated with the crisis.

The following thoughts are from Lieutenant General (Retired) Bob Caslen, former Jacksonville University Provost Donnie Horner, and HigherEchelon’s Senior Vice President of Human Capital Services, Rick Roper.  Bob, Donnie, and Rick are valued members of our HigherEchelon team, and each have a unique process for managing the  complex and ambiguous requirements of today’s world.

We hope you find this discussion useful and relevant across the various domains of whatever challenges your organizations might face and develop or follow your own imperative values to drive success.

From:  Lieutenant General (Retired) Bob Caslen

Bob is the President of the University of South Carolina and former Superintendent at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  During his illustrious 43-year Army career, he commanded the 25th Infantry Division during the Iraq War.


In a crisis, take time to understand the nature of the problem – its root causes, extent of damages, intended and unintended consequences.  Then take time to understand the long-term consequences.  In understanding the environment, identify strengths (e.g., tradition, leadership, culture), problems (e.g., lack of resources, communication, subordinate commitment), opportunities (e.g., new innovative products, assertive leadership), and threats (e.g., economic impact, loss of trust, shift in consumer preference).  Then understand where risk exists, how to mitigate it, and where risk is unacceptable.


People must retain hope in a crisis.  Hope comes from trust in leadership.  Trust comes from authentic leaders who are transparent, communicate constantly, and demonstrate caring and compassion to those impacted by the crisis, including teammates.  In communicating, it is imperative to identify constituencies and audiences – both internal and external.  Develop a strategy to engage with each constituent and audience. Be open and honest—transparency builds trust.  Seek feedback and innovative ideas.  Use multiple media means including social media and official media to broaden your reach.


Above all – create and maintain hope.  The leader must portray a positive and optimistic image.  Lead decisively — effective solutions are often not from incrementalism but rather from very bold and decisive acts.  Mistakes are often made in crisis management.  Learn from the mistakes, adjusts, and move forward.  Be honest with yourself and confront hard truths.  Analyze and understand the problem and how it contributed to the crisis, identifying where risk is acceptable and where it is not acceptable.  Above all, actively communicate — constantly and with transparency.  Communication and transparency build trust, and trust builds hope.  An effective leader is an authentic leader, who leads with transparency, character and caring.

From:  Dr. Donnie Horner

Donnie is the former Provost at Jacksonville University, where he also served as the Director of Athletics.  He previously served as the Education Commissioner for the City of Jacksonville, and twice commanded Army battalions, one during conflict in Bosnia.


Particularly during challenging times, it is important to establish a top priority and then stick to it.  The co-mingling of messaging about lesser priorities with THE priority tends to confuse the audience and leave them wondering “What’s the focus?”  Today, the ‘main thing’ — THE priority — is protecting the health of the American people and mitigating associated risks.  Mentioning other priorities — the economy, unemployment, possible dates for returning to normalcy — has the deleterious effect of diluting the main effort.  This is not to say that secondary and tertiary priorities are not important.  They are.  But, they’re not THE priority.  Want followers to focus on THE priority?  Stay focused on THE priority — your messaging and actions should reflect this.  Subsequent messaging can pick-up on the lesser but still important priorities. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.


Want to know how people will tend to behave in the future?  Look at their past and current behaviors.  It’s really that simple.  In the present case, Americans tend to be highly autonomous, spontaneous, highly mobile, focused on immediate gratification, and tend to exhibit “we want what we want when we want it” attitudes and behaviors.  When confronted with a crisis, leaders should use these notions to accentuate that this is not business as usual. Emphasize that past behaviors must change to a new-normal.  Embrace the crisis to shock the previous collective behavioral predispositions and implement guidelines that seek immediate, rapid compliance. Couple this with punitive measures if the new guidance is not followed, and remember it is always better to enforce a HARD, stringent standard at the outset and then lighten-up over time — not the opposite.  If you start out too lenient, too soft, or too light and then try to toughen-up, followers tend to develop cognitive dissonance, resist, and think “If it’s so bad, why didn’t you impose these harsh restrictions from the beginning?”


Systems are designed to handle normal demands based on past usage data quantified via experience over time.  Most systems typically have some additional surge capacity built-in and available for relatively short duration.  This is particularly true of medical and logistical services.  System rationalization means that seemingly small problems can get very complex very quickly when confronted on a massive, large scale because the system cannot maintain surge capacities — they just don’t have the resources or personnel.  When patients are piling into emergency rooms and hospital capacities are exceeded day after day, the response is “we need more of this and more of that and we need it right now.”  In our rush to address the immediate needs and out of fear of shortages, we tend to hoard, forgetting that stockpiling on a local level flies in the face of optimizing the system at a regional, state, or national level.  The current pandemic illustrates how quantity takes on a quality all its own.  Leaders in similar circumstances do well to pay attention to problem volume, because complexities associated with volume become system optimization problems.  Getting the right stuff to the right place at the right time requires a centralized, intelligent, data-driven decision making approach and infrastructure which optimizes the system on a macro level, meets needs on the local level, and overcomes the human tendency to hoard and stockpile materials whether they’re needed or not.

From:  Rick Roper

Rick is a Senior Vice President at HigherEchelon with a diverse background in applied leadership and operational experience as an officer in the U.S. Army. As a former college athlete, he was an early student in West Point’s Center for Enhanced Performance, which oriented on mental skills and high-performance training.


When you look at CEO’s top annual objectives, one thing you will not routinely find is an effort toward establishing a more resilient and adaptable organization. COVID19 will end soon, but in the grand scheme something else will take its place. It could come in the form of a housing crisis, natural disaster, war, economic depression, another pandemic—or, simply a competitor who is just flat out better than everyone else. So how do organizations survive? The toughest organizations in the modern environment will examine themselves through the lenses of its people, processes, and technology and find ways to deal with setbacks and change as needed. Establishing a resilient and adaptable culture, diversifying and economizing your business processes, and equipping yourself with the right technology/tools will protect you when the next storm comes. After all, there is a reason boxers are taught to keep their gloves up—it’s so they don’t get knocked out.


Initially, we all heard that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. would die, and some reports even indicated as many as 1 million deaths would occur due to COVID19. Fortunately, that will not be the case; however, the initial hysteria may have forced some into over-reacting. In any crisis situation, first reports are usually wrong. Take time to gather the facts, assess and understand the situation, then decide on a graduated response. It is the leader’s role to set the tone and control knee-jerk reactions in order to work your way through a tough situation.


Our prolonged engagement with the COVID19 crisis is having a common incredible impact — making us do things differently. Unfortunately, no one likes change, but regardless of the crisis at hand things still have to get done. To help those around you embrace the new reality and better adopt a new way of doing business, deliberately think through the change effort. In most cases, we don’t understand the reason things are changing, so we resist and never buy-in to the ​new way. As a result, the organization becomes irrelevant. We do not need a crisis to necessitate deliberate change management practices—the modern work environment is taking care of that for us. Today, things are changing more rapidly than any point in the history of humanity. COVID19 is not permanent, but change is. Embrace change management best practices now, when it’s critical, and maintain them long after this is over with.

The Time to Lead is Now

HigherEchelon offers these leadership insights during today’s trying times to help you and your organization maintain high performance. When operations are virtual, economies are slowing, and chaos continues, leadership is more important than ever. Be a leader in your organization by facilitating trust, managing priorities, and remaining resilient and adaptable.