Ethical Leadership During COVID-19

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Female with medical mask speaking with press with hands of journalists with microphones. vector illustration in flat style on blue background with world mapWhen we reflect on the year 2020, we will see public organizations and nonprofits that handled the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways. The most eye-catching instances will be those organizations that maintained their integrity and took the high road through difficult times, ethically speaking.

Mayor Steve Miller of Fairfield, Ohio exemplified ethical leadership during the coronavirus crisis. Beginning on April 1, 2020, Miller conducted a Facebook-broadcasted 3-month tour of 36 locally owned businesses, according to the WCPO-Cincinnati article, “’ Mayor’s Business Tour’ Helps Keep Fairfield Businesses Open During Pandemic.”

“Over the years [these businesses have] done a lot to help us,” Miller says in the article. “They’ve been very community-oriented. They’ve given to fundraisers, charities, they’ve given to us and helped us. Now it’s our turn to give back to them and help them when they need us.”

The COVID-19 pandemic government shutdown and social distancing regulations continue to present obstacles for which many departments and agencies are simply not prepared. In such a situation a solid ethical foundation can help leaders negotiate these obstacles with everyone’s best interests in mind.

Values Trade-off: No Perfect Solution

New and experienced public administrators alike need to cultivate a sense of ethical leadership and responsibility to persevere honorably through trying times. Situations will arise that have no precedent and leaders will have to move forward with only their own sense of ethical responsibility and moral values as a guide.

To further complicate a manager’s job during a crisis, some decisions can involve a sort of tug of war between equally, or nearly equal, values and obligations. In’s “Ethics Matter! Ethical Leadership in the Time of COVID-19,” author Martha Perego points out that certain traditionally accepted core values can be more challenging to maintain during a crisis:

  • Truth and loyalty can clash. Reducing or deferring taxes can truthfully help those suffering financially during a pandemic. But loyalty to balancing a budget and maintaining revenue is integral to a job in public administration.
  • The individual’s needs can contradict the community’s needs. Library patrons’ need to access public, free information can clash with the medical needs of at-risk members of the population who can’t be served unless monies are redirected from less-critical areas.
  • Short-term and long-term plans can contradict each other. Continuing infrastructure projects can stimulate the short-term economy, but in the long-term, their costs will stack on top of pandemic debts and may become insurmountable.
  • Justice and mercy can seem equally appropriate. Punishments, such as fines, for not abiding by social distancing/mask guidelines can seem harsh and totalitarian while stemming the spread of a dangerous virus. Mercy, on the other hand, may seem appropriate for someone not wearing a mask, but leniency can result in a faster infection rate.

In most instances, the best solution will fall somewhere between the extremes: Maintaining tax revenue, for example, but allowing low-income households to opt in to a deferment payment arrangement.

What Constitutes Good Leadership During a Crisis?

People tend to act differently in a crisis. The CDC’s “Psychology of a Crisis” explains that people in the midst of a traumatic event, such as a pandemic or a hurricane, exhibit certain behaviors. They can get bogged down with a rapid deluge of facts, have trouble remembering pertinent information, misinterpret information, believe the first message they receive, and experience fear, uncertainty, anxiety and dread.

According to the American Psychological Association’s “How Leaders Can Maximize Trust and Minimize Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” effective crisis leaders in business, public administration, education and even parents should:

  • Share information with empathy and optimism
  • Use credibility to build trust
  • Be honest and transparent
  • Provide regular communications
  • Provide a forum for feedback
  • Be a role model

In a public administration setting, speaking to government employees who will be directly interacting with a panicky public, an effective and efficient leader should strive to maintain a positive, calm and honest demeanor. Any negativity, anxiety or deception can filter down to the general population and cause problems.

Many leaders make the mistake of attempting to sugarcoat harsh truths in times of crisis. Unfortunately, this approach can cause more problems than it solves. The public should not be treated like children who need to be sheltered from bad news, according to strategist David Robson’s BBC article, “COVID-19: What Makes of Good Leader During a Crisis?”

The public and the organization’s staff need to understand the uncertainties involved with any given crisis. Leaders can counter the uncertainties by promoting a sense of purpose in both the community and the government, explains Robson. Common goals can help people come together and beat the pandemic.

Finally, public administrators and their staffs are likely to be overworked during crises. Effective leaders should go out of their way to let subordinates know that they are appreciated for their hard work.’s “10 Ways to Spread Appreciation During Challenging Times” suggests that leaders appreciate people as a team and individually; recognize helpers, volunteers, and those who go above and beyond; add a personal touch with each person; and give back to both their workers and the community.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online Master’s in Public Administration program prepares graduates for a variety of leadership careers in the nonprofit sector, including recruiting and managing volunteers.

The University’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs offers foundational coursework in public policy and nonprofit management while building skills in budgeting and resource development, leadership and governance, and communications and community outreach. The school occupies the No. 12 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2019 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

Recommended Reading:

Career Spotlight: Emergency Management Director
What Happens When a Disaster Is Declared?
Crisis Collaboration

Sources: “Mayor’s Business Tour Helps Keep Fairfield Businesses Open During Pandemic”, “Ethics Matter! Ethical Leadership in the Time of COVID-19”, “Psychology of a Crisis”, “How Leaders Can Maximize Trust and Minimize Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, “10 Ways to Spread Appreciation During Challenging Times”