Crisis leadership lessons from history

By Aaron Rice
March 26, 2020

Whether you are a leader in politics, a business, nonprofit, church, school, or community, you are probably asking yourself how you are going lead your team into the new unknown of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is true that this crisis is unprecedented in many ways, but that is no reason to lose heart. Leaders throughout history have often met and overcome unprecedented challenges in their own times. What can we learn from their examples? 

Steady nerves

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius certainly knew a thing or two about leadership through crisis. During his reign, Rome suffered from severe flooding, famine, invasion, and its own viral pandemic that killed up to 2,000 Romans per day and eventually resulted in the deaths of 5 million people. In his influential writings now known as The Meditations, Marcus recorded many of the leadership lessons he learned from these tumultuous times.

Marcus wrote that a leader must remain calm and display confidence to those around them. Leaders cannot appear uncertain of their decisions or panicked. Fear is contagious, but so is calmness. Leaders also don’t complain, blame others, or become rattled. Instead, leaders exhibit strength and courage in the face of daunting challenges. 

Meticulous planning – and adaptability 

As the military maxim reminds us, no plan lasts beyond initial contact with the enemy. While this may be true, there is a paradoxical need to plan carefully anyway, especially for emergencies.

As President Dwight Eisenhower put it: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”  

If the plans will change, why does planning matter? Because the planning process itself requires thorough exploration of all the relevant variables, contingencies, and opportunities. The knowledge gained during that process can be quickly applied as the facts on the ground unfold. 


George Washington’s will for the continental army – and the revolutionary cause – to survive a disastrous supply crisis during the freezing winter at Valley Forge embodies the inspiring relentlessness that leaders must have during times of crisis.

By definition, a crisis is challenging, unpredictable, and often dangerous. In order to succeed, leaders need others to devote themselves fully to overcoming those challenges. A leader who is not personally committed to the cause will never inspire others to meet the challenge.


President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership qualities were also forged in turbulent times. When he entered office, the country was on the brink of a civil war that would soon leave over 600,000 Americans dead at the hands of their fellow countrymen. 

Lincoln knew that leaders in crisis must be secure enough to realize that they don’t have all the answers, willing to rely on their team for potential insights, and able to learn from their mistakes. He provided the most famous example of this type of humility, recruiting a “team of rivals” who often challenged his views. Spirited debates were a hallmark of Lincoln’s cabinet, and he made better decisions because of these rigorous exchanges. 


The entire point of leadership – especially in times of crisis – is to serve those in the leader’s charge. 

The importance of selfless leadership has been displayed for generations by Marine Corps drill instructors - the leaders of new recruits who enter boot camp. Recruits never see their drill instructors eat, drink, sleep, sit down, or visit the restroom. This strategy reinforces to the recruits that, despite all the demands the drill instructors place on them, they have their recruits’ best interest at heart. The drill instructors make sure the recruits’ physical needs are met, while never seeming to have the same concern for themselves.

By the end of boot camp, young men and women have been transformed into United States Marines, capable of working together to accomplish dangerous missions under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, while following leaders who they know are looking out for the team.

That’s what selfless leadership can accomplish.  

This is the third of a three-part series, Perspectives of a Pandemic.


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