Good Read for Leaders in Times of Pandemic: Leonard Marcus and Eric McNulty – You’re It. Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most

By Piotr Koryński, for MFC CEO FORUM

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about the serious problems afflicting the world and I tell myself; ‘I must talk to the pope about it’. Then the next day when I wake up, I remember that I am the pope.”

-Pope John XXIII


Your leadership moment. The curtain rises and everyone looks to you. They count on you. A solution must be found. You take the helm. You did not ask for it. You’re it.

Some situations you anticipate. Others come as a surprise. Whether you are a crisis leader professional, an organizational leader, or an unsuspecting bystander, in an instant you can be leading a crisis response or leading a part of it. Suddenly, you are responsible. What do you do?

You can never be ready for a crisis. No matter how much you prepare, imagine, test and rehearse. When it happens, it is always different from what you had expected, and while the preparations are necessary and useful, someone must stand at the helm and bring calm in the turbulent times. Crises, large and small, will happen. Financial shortfall, sexual harassment allegations, product liability—you as a leader must be prepared for whatever comes.

Leonard (Lenny) Marcus and Eric McNulty from the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard share their long-standing experience in dealing with crisis and leaders in crisis which they summarized in their recent book You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (2019). They discuss what happens in crisis moments: ideas, methods, and pragmatic tools that will guide you as you guide others.

In this lively talk, Marcus and McNulty remind us of some simple truths about leadership that are often forgotten.

Leading is a verb, not a state. No matter what they call themselves, leaders must act and do something that will take a team or an organization or a country through a crisis situation. In fact, most real-life leaders do not have titles. But they act, in good and bad times. You are a leader if people follow you.

Leading means responsibility. Many people in executive positions shirk responsibility: they blame others, ignore advice, keep doing and going on despite the obvious signals that something has fundamentally changed, and a different course of action is needed. A leader must own it.

Leading is perplexing. There are no simple crisis. There is no complete information and no one person can solve it. A leader must figure out who to engage so that within a short time he or she can gather the needed information and make decisions that will override the crisis. A leader must be clear what they don’t know. They cannot drive to the known without asking about the unknowns.

Marcus and McNulty point to a very important aspect of every crisis: time. Timing is essential. Every crisis ends. What matters is how a leader acts and behaves “over the arc of time” of a crisis. Time is limited but a leader can mold time if he or she pays attention to it. They urge leaders to “get out of the basement”, a hiding place where a leader tries to find temporary comfort in view of the overwhelming unknown.

The “basement” moment can happen to the greatest leaders. President Roosevelt, before he famously said in his inaugural address in 1933 that ”Our greatest primary task is to put people to work”, was vehemently opposed to government interventions and Keynesian economics underlying these policies. Leaders must emerge from the basement.

Fulfilling your potential as a leader requires a keen awareness and understanding of how your personal experiences—your decisions, stumbles, and triumphs—got you to where you are now. Each prepares you for the moment when “you’re it.”

If you are interested or intrigued by crisis leadership (remember, you may need it at any moment), you may want to review the podcast series of the National Preparedness Leadership Institute (Leader ReadyCast) to expand your thinking on leading and managing in crisis.  A few reflective questions based on the interview with Lenny Marcus and Eric McNulty:

  • Do you remember a situation when you were “it”? How do you assess your actions from the perspective of time?
  • Marcus and McNulty talk about “swarms”, groups of people collaborating and supporting each other for whatever purpose which can be used in crisis situations. Do you see such “swarms” in your organizations which could be re-purposed in time of a crisis?
  • We are in the middle of a historic crisis. How do you assess the preparedness of your organization to deal with crisis?

Enjoy listening to the interview and let us know what you think.


This pubication has received financial support from the European Union Programme for Employment and Social Innovation “EaSI” (2014-2020). For further information please consult:
The information contained in this publication does not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Commission.