Leadership in Crisis: What Good Looks Like

Prof. Kevin Sharer

In his monthly column for the Harbus, Professor Kevin W. Sharer shares his thoughts on the issues facing HBS students.

To state the obvious, we are in a time of crisis and great uncertainty. We are taking unprecedented steps on the societal, economic and healthcare fronts. Our leaders at the national, state, local and business levels are doing their best. One leader stands out as a model for what good looks like. We are all students of leadership at HBS, and many of you will face your own call to lead in difficult times and circumstances. Take the time to watch this fifty-minute video of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 22 press conference at a time of maximum concern and uncertainty. He displays every behavior and aspect of a great leader in a time of uncertainty and peril. We can learn from him. There are so, so many things that he does right. He makes it look easy. It is not easy as we see other leaders in business and government struggle in this and other crises. I leave it to a future HBS case writer to really unpack his leadership approach and effect but want to highlight here some things that are particularly important and widely applicable. Let’s take a page from David Letterman and his top ten list approach to analyze Governor Cuomo’s leadership approach.

  1. He is ready. He is the son of a governor, was attorney general, knows the state intimately and has been governor for a while. He understands context and the ecosystem at the deepest level—so should a CEO.
  2. He is prepared for the session and is well organized. He has a logical flow that is highly understandable and succinct. He uses slides to reinforce topics, facts, and questions. He knows the material cold. He knows what is on people’s minds. He clearly and specifically distinguishes between fact, his opinions and advice. He is ready. This is a test every leader needs to pass.
  3. His style and demeanor are reassuring and appropriate, helping to build confidence. By demeanor, we refer to his tone of voice, speaking pace, calm personal presentation, casual dress and way of sitting at table with colleagues, as well as his lack of ego, swagger or bluster. He looks and sounds like a parent at the family table, respectfully briefing the family. He uses candor to build credibility. Think how many leaders can do this—not many. He is himself, an authentic New Yorker!
  4. His presentation is fact-based, focused on progress and clearly acknowledges the issues. In crisis, people need the facts. Period. To quote FDR like Governor Cuomo did, “the American people can handle the truth but not falsehoods.” He instills confidence and hope by describing progress and his progress description is made more credible by his acknowledgement of issues. He does not indulge in blame. Blame is so seductive, but in the middle of a crisis, it is not appropriate. There will be plenty of time for lessons learned later.
  5. He shows empathy by acknowledging people’s concerns in a sincere way, but he also points out where we need to do better. He teaches. He explains the nature of epidemics, the vulnerability of all age groups and the need to be serious about social distancing and the fact that we are too often falling short. He says he would see for himself what was happening that day using a “leading by walking around” approach. He does not threaten but persuades and calls on our better angels for the good of all.
  6. He gives others credit and has his team present and contributing. Weak leaders need to dominate. Strong leaders rely on the team. Governor Cuomo takes many chances to acknowledge help or good performance by others. By so doing, he appears to be involved, knowledgeable and effective. This is a powerful technique to demonstrate credibility and leading from the front.
  7. He does not try to spin anything. This is so hard for a leader in our time of social media and extreme partisanship everywhere. His “Just the facts ma’am” approach (like that of detective Joe Friday from the old TV show Dragnet) is core. When it is his opinion, he says so. When the facts are not clear, Governor Cuomo points that out. He does not try to “perfume the pig,” as bankers like to say, when peddling a troubled property. This takes courage and confidence.
  8. He uses humor appropriately. This is a high art form and can backfire but, when done well, can help. This is not for rookies and requires every one of the prior seven behaviors and approaches to work. It also must be done gently and not be at anyone’s expense, except possibly one’s own. When asked if the media was a vital service, he paused, smiled and said, “I might think so, but maybe not everybody does.”
  9. He takes the toughest questions respectfully and gives straight answers. Q&A is a powerful, powerful leadership approach when done well and can backfire disastrously when done poorly. Preparation, pacing and respect are key. No BS. If you do not know, say so, and indicate when you will have the answer. Answer the question. Do not use the politicians’ device of giving a mini speech on another topic—otherwise known as a pivot. People are smart, they see through you. Treat every question and every questioner with respect. Governor Cuomo is a master.
  10. 10. He does this virtually every day. This pattern conveys “I am here,” “I am leading,” “I am accountable to you,” “You can trust me,” and “I can take the heat.” Not a bad set of tests for any leader.


This too shall pass.


Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was the CEO of Amgen for 12 years and, before that, Amgen’s president for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade, he was chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.