Written by Marsha Hughes-Rease

As a regular contributor to Forbes magazine, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox recently pointed out how the countries with some of the most effective responses to the novel coronavirus are led by women leaders. On the other hand, some of the countries with the worst outcomes to this pandemic are led by men. Although it may be unfair to feminize leadership, it may be useful to think about how the characteristics most frequently associated with female leaders can enhance any leader’s effectiveness during these challenging times. As coaches, we can help leaders show up as their best selves to do the work of leading during and after this pandemic.

Regardless of the leader’s gender, there should be a rallying cry for government, organizational, and community leaders at all levels to reappraise their leadership practices during this humanitarian crisis. Why? Because the authoritarian, self-centered, and in some cases, malignant narcissistic behaviors we have witnessed by some of our leaders may be more harmful and dangerous than the coronavirus. For example, the reckless “musing” by President Trump to ingest or inject disinfectants to treat COVID-19 or the decision of some state governors to open up businesses in spite of the fact that the number of COVID-19 continues to increase in their states. These types of crisis-oriented leadership behaviors do not instill confidence in the leaders’ intellectual prowess and actually diminishes their credibility and trustworthiness.

Although some individuals may be drawn to this type of leadership style in a time of uncertainty and confusion, I think most of us have found that this type of behavior actually increases our anxiety and incites more fear than the coronavirus.  Leading with bounded optimism, moral courage, and empathetic inclusivity are the characteristics that have been repeatedly demonstrated by many effective female (and male) leaders around the world and might be considered foundational knowledge for us as coaches to support a healthy crisis response by our leader clients.

Bounded optimism is the ability of a leader to combine reality with optimism and confidence.  There is a place for optimism; however, it cannot be wishful thinking that attempts to dissuade people from reality-based facts and science. At the beginning of the pandemic, many leaders exhibited excessive optimism despite the dire situation and their unbounded optimism may have contributed to the needless loss of life. Dr. Anthony Fauci has been the personification of bounded optimism when he addresses the American public. He is both reassuring and cautiously optimistic about being able to resume some degree of normalcy in our lives. He is also very realistic about the behavior of the coronavirus and the road to recovery. Consequently, he is one of the most believable and trusted leaders navigating the recovery effort!

Robust decision making is another skill needed by leaders during a crisis and moral courage should be part of any deliberative decision making process. It helps leaders to use their moral imagination to do what is right in the face of their own fears and the fears of others. For example, Captain Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, was fired because of a leaked memo warning his chain of command that sailors would die unless most of the crew was placed into individual quarantine. He made the decision to do what was right because he was aware of how his actions could affect the welfare of his sailors. His moral courage to speak truth to power may have saved many sailors lives.

Empathetic inclusivity is actions taken by leaders to become aware of, sensitive to, and able to understand the experiences and needs of others. And in order to empathize and be inclusive, the leader must be able to suspend her judgement, challenge her own assumptions, and listen deeply with curiosity to the different perspectives of “the other”. For example, the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Bottoms, has established an advisory council of diverse representatives from different industries as well as segments of the population to understand their needs as she begins to plan the reopening of Atlanta. She intends to listen to these stakeholders’ perspectives to help her “outline a safe and thoughtful framework to get our economy back on track without endangering public health.” She is not pretending that she knows what it is like to walk in their shoes….she is engaging them to share with her what it is like to be in their shoes. Her inclusive approach is what is needed to address the adaptive challenge of reopening a major city with one of the busiest airports in the world.

Having to choose between ‘the virus and the leader’ is a false choice. Leadership actions informed by bounded optimism, moral courage, and empathetic inclusivity are not reserved just for female leaders. These are behaviors needed by leaders to support members of whatever enterprise they lead to emerge from this relentless assault on the individual and collective psyche. As coaches, we can help our leader clients do the work of healing while building their capacity to lead with bounded optimism, moral courage, and empathetic inclusivity to effectively navigate this unprecedented disruption in our lives.



  1. Wittenberg-Cox, A. (April 22, 2020). 8 (More) women leaders facing the coronavirus crisis. https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/22/8-more-women-leaders-facing-the-coronavirus-crisis/#52e3dcbd288


  1. Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (April 15, 2020). Do we get the leaders we deserve? http://www.ila-net.org/Reflections/mvries.html


  1. D’Auria, G. & De Smet, Aaron. ( March 2020). Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges.https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Organization/Our%20Insights/Leadership%20in%20a%20crisis%20Responding%20to%20the%20coronavirus%20outbreak%20and%20future%20challenges/Leadership-in-a-crisis-Responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges-v3.ashx


  1. Murray, J.S., (Sept 30, 2010) “Moral courage in healthcare: Acting ethically even in the presence of risk” OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing 15, No. 3, Manuscript 2. http://ojin.nursingworld.org/mainmenucategories/ethicsstandards/resources/courage-and-distress/moral-courage-and-risk.html


  1. Johnson, C. E. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership casting light or shadow (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publishing.


  1. Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactic for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.


Marsha Hughes-Rease is the founder of Quo Vadis Coaching and Consulting and a leadership coach and organization effectiveness consultant. As a coach, she works with executives, senior leaders, and leadership teams to unleash the potential in the organization by optimizing their leadership style, influencing strategies, and management practices. As a consultant, she helps organizations address their challenges adapting to change, make tough choices, and develop sustainable solutions. When partnering with her clients, she uses an intentional and evidence-based approach to facilitate the “discovery” of organizational best practices and positive deviances that can result in higher performance and desired results. She partners with leaders to enable the organization to tap the wisdom and resilience in the system to develop strategies to deal with a unpredictable and volatile environment. Marsha has extensive experience working in health care, higher education, government, and multinational organizations. She has written several articles on leadership and change, designed and presented webinars, and spoken at both national and international conferences. Marsha has a graduate degree in Organization Development and a graduate certificate in group facilitation from Johns Hopkins University, a graduate degree in Nursing Administration from George Mason University, and a graduate certificate in coaching from Fielding Graduate University. She is also an International Coach Federation (ICF) professional certified coach (PCC) and a Fellow in the Institute of Coaching.


Connect with Marsha on LinkedIn at: www.linkedin.com/in/marshahughesrease

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