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Leadership Lessons From the Coronavirus Crisis

6 leaders caught up in the pandemic offer valuable tips for small businesses

spinner image Dr.  John Torres appeared on the Today Show on February 17, 2020
John Torres, NBC News medical correspondent

For direction during the coronavirus pandemic, most of us naturally turn to prominent decision-makers appearing on television or in news headlines. But some of the very best leadership has been quietly demonstrated far away from cameras and microphones.

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Courtesy Ellie Hollander

Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, which gives millions of seniors the food and resources they desperately need amid COVID-19

Ironically, we're now facing the same social isolation component that we've faced for decades with the homebound seniors we serve. But I'm committed to making sure that social isolation and social disengagement aren't the same. You can be socially isolated, but you don't have to feel lonely. As a leader, I set the example. I am having virtual staff meetings where we'll put up funny pictures of our faces. I'll start singing Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive.” We have places online where staff members can ask questions, and I'm also checking in one-on-one with my staff. They're not expecting it, so they might get a little nervous, but I want to know how they're doing.

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Keith Weller

Kevin Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System, a world-renowned academic network that includes one of America’s top-rated hospitals

I’m an old oncology nurse, and when your job is to go in and tell people they have cancer and talk to them about the implications, it puts perspective on crisis management. That translates now to remaining calm, because if your own emotions are built into the crisis, you become a part of the problem. For example, faced with shortages in the supply chain, we had to teach staff how to cleanse N95 masks for re-use according to CDC guidelines. That’s very different from what people were accustomed to. But if you stay calm, making sure that you build your strategies and actions on facts, employees respond.


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Diane Pearse, is CEO of Hickory Farms, a mid-size business known for its gourmet foods

Being in this crisis is like driving a car without your glasses. Accept that you can’t see certain things. Normally we’re making decisions and commitments now to be prepared for our busy season at the end of the year. This year, we are delaying by several weeks the decision on which malls we will operate in for the 2020 holiday season; we are spreading out our commitments with suppliers; and we are gating our website development work rather than committing up front to the full statement of work for 2020. We’re thinking in two-week increments. Or I’ll say, what can we do best today? What can we do best over the next 45 minutes? Sometimes it’s just, what’s my next move? Shortening the timeframe gives you greater control.


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Jeffrey Bolton, chief administrative officer, The Mayo Clinic, with 65,000 employees across the enterprise, including hospitals, is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious medical and research organizations

 CEO “Gianrico ‘Rico’ Farrugia and I immediately got physicians and scientists here working together to look for potential cures. And we’ve also been able to connect patients with healthcare providers through technology, and accelerate our movement into virtual healthcare delivery., using our command center on the Rochester campus to support smaller rural hospitals in this crisis where they are unable to recruit the kind of talent that we have. Part of leading is communicating well to your staff, so they know what they need to know, and also that you don’t have all the answers. So we hold virtual town halls online twice a week answering questions live and seeing what’s on their minds.   

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John Torres, NBC News medical correspondent and emergency medicine physician, fighting the battle on the air and in critical care units

What gets me adrenalized is the pace of the current situation. I'll be seconds from going on the air and someone will hand me a slip of paper that says here's the latest thing. Whoa! Within 30 seconds I have to digest the new information, assess whether it's true and be ready to explain it to millions of viewers. One big breath in through the nose and out through the mouth helps me reset as I go live with breaking news. People are relying on me. I need to be like that rock in the middle of a raging stream.


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David Leebron, president of Rice University, one of the first big colleges to lock its gates as the virus hit the U.S.

In February a Rice staff member was diagnosed with COVID-19, after her return from a cruise in Egypt. We took immediate steps to self-quarantine all 14 people she had contact with, and all those came through without symptoms. This helped put us in a mindset of quick and decisive action. As we approached spring break we opted to cancel classes and move to online education. I'm very sympathetic. This is hard on students. They like being in school and being with friends. But we're in a very grave situation, and as a community, we have to take it very seriously.

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