COVID-19 analysis

Leading in a time of pandemic

In a time of global crisis, we all need to see leaders in action, and many of us need to be leaders in action, says Philip Morris International SVP Global Communications Marian Salzman. Here, she looks at some of the key disciplines to keep in mind.

“How long since business leaders have had to steward their employees (and shareholders) through a full-blown global crisis?” asks Philip Morris International SVP Global Communications Marian Salzman in her March 2020 newsletter, reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis.

The 2007–2008 global financial crash was the last time, but “that was a digital lifetime ago”. A rising generation of employees will not have experienced anything like the COVID-19 storm, she says.

Seasoned businesspeople may have an advantage in that they “know how it feels to operate without a map in uncharted territory”. They can use this knowledge to play a leadership role, bearing in mind the following factors.

There will be pain – for leaders, too

“As the global airline industry braces for layoffs and passenger revenue losses currently estimated as high as US$113 billion, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce announced he will forgo his salary for the remainder of the financial year. It’s an example other CEOs may want to follow,” says Salzman.

“To stay afloat, the airline will have to slash schedules, cut wages, require unpaid leave, and lay off some workers. Like so many other businesses, it must cut deep enough to stay solvent for as long as the crisis lasts but maintain enough capacity to get going again as quickly as possible when it’s over.”

Philip Morris International SVP Global Communications Marian Salzman

Stay in your lane

“At a time when the media is full of corona punditry, Liverpool F.C. manager Jürgen Klopp (pictured left) has impressed even non-fans with his refusal to jump on the bandwagon,” points out Salzman. “Keeping his eye on managing the US$2.18 billion brand he leads, Klopp emphatically told journalists he is just a football manager and his opinion on coronavirus didn’t matter. His comments went viral as an example of blunt good sense: ‘It’s not important what famous people say … people with knowledge [should] talk about it’.”

Intentions yes, predictions no

No-one knows what will happen so leaders should steer clear from talking as if they do, or risk losing the trust of stakeholders, according to Salzman. “What fosters trust are clearly stated and explained intentions, with concrete plans to implement them and consistent actions to back them up,” she says.

Practice critical thinking

In times of crisis, people are on high alert for danger signals, she notes. “Rumours, misinformation, and panic spread with alarming speed, especially now that there’s digital technology to carry them far and fast. Employees are likely to be feeling a whole range of fears. It’s a time for leaders to set an example by how they seek out information and respond to it. What’s the source, how reliable is it, and does it jibe with other sources? How does it fit into the bigger picture?”

“We need to stay apart as we face it together”

Photo by Mika Baumeister on unsplash

Forge connections

Salzman says that an irony of the COVID-19 crisis is that while it is impacting almost everyone, social distancing is necessary. “In other words, we need to stay apart as we face it together,” she says. “That means avoiding gatherings, public places, public transportation, and even the workplace. One of the most critical functions of leadership is fostering togetherness in common purpose. That’s a lot easier to do face-to-face in a meeting room than through Zoom or emails. The current crisis is challenging leaders to find new ways to connect with employees and help employees stay connected with each other.”

For Salzman, the toll the COVID-19 crisis will take on a business “may have less to do with the virus itself than with your leadership’s response to it”.

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The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 278 | 7 April 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 12 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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