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How CEOs Can Lead Selflessly Through a Crisis


You might think that crises tend to bring out the worst in people, but that isn’t reflected in how we view our leaders, at least. In fact, crises cause us to view leaders as more charismatic and effective than we normally do. This is probably why U.S. presidents are almost universally re-elected in times of war. And research has shown that leaders who self-sacrifice tend to be seen as the most effective.


Following 9/11, I was so intrigued by crisis leadership that I did a study on the topic. In my research I found that leader self-sacrifice, such as cutting one’s own salary or giving up one’s own benefits, caused employees to feel more positively toward their leaders and more committed to their organizations during crises. This finding has been corroborated by additional research in the lab and field that suggests that when leaders demonstrate self-sacrificial behavior, it makes us see them as having higher moral values and as being a better role model — leading to better organizational outcomes.


More recently, we have seen CEOs step up to support their employees during this pandemic by pledging not to lay off employees —even those who cannot go into work. For example, even though all of Patagonia’s stores are closed, CEO Yvon Chouinard has announced that the company will continue to pay all employees, leading some to conclude that the values-driven organization will survive the pandemic while other organizations will fail. Other CEOs who have committed to no layoffs include Hearst CEO Steven Swartz, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly Jr., and FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.


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