WHU General

COVID-19 Needs Heroes, but not Heroic Leadership

Who will lead us out of the corona crisis?

Professor Dr. Miriam Müthel, Chair of Organizational Behavior at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management, gets to the bottom of the question of what leadership and good employee management mean in the current situation.

It is a time for heroes. Just looking at the current trends in streaming services confirms this. Disaster movies are in high demand on Amazon Prime, Netflix and Co. and provide information about a widespread need of the population: the need for a strong leader who navigates the state and the world through the crisis in a heroic manner.

"In situations like this, which are characterized by such a high degree of uncertainty, the desire for a heroic leader is understandable," explains Professor Miriam Müthel. "It is therefore not surprising that people are looking hopefully for heroic deeds of those on management level." Certainly, it is undisputed that in extreme situations one or the other has already outgrown himself. But do leaders need to become heroes so we can deal with COVID-19?

Müthel defines crisis situations by four characteristics: They come unexpectedly, pose a threat to the organization, do not provide clear patterns of resolution, and put the affected parties under time pressure to act. This has been the case since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was the same with the flooding of Hamburg in 1962. In addition, Miriam Müthel distinguishes between two fundamentally different concepts of leadership: leadership-centered leadership with the heroic leader at the center of all action (Heroic Leadership) and employee-centered leadership with a leader who empowers his employees to act independently (Empowering Leadership). The former relies primarily on its own abilities, the latter on those of everyone involved. The former gives detailed instructions and expects them to be followed, the latter gives its team members their own decision-making powers so that they can act independently and on their own responsibility.

In 1962, Helmut Schmidt, who was Senator of the Interior of Hamburg back then, was celebrated and raised to hero status for his commitment during the Hamburg flood crisis. For decades, he was perceived by the population as a heroic leader, an image he himself helped to shape through his description of the events. In the face of the Corona crisis, however, the former chancellor recently came under fire after more and more voices were raised calling for a new Helmut Schmidt. As reported in the Spiegel issue of April 23, exaggerations as well as partial truths on the Senator’s part had led to an inaccurate portrayal of the events. But even if the image of the heroic leader can no longer be maintained according to current knowledge, Schmidt's performance was outstanding for a completely different reason: Schmidt acted according to the employee-centered leadership style and thus, as Müthel explains, embodied a leadership ideal with which he was far ahead of his time.

The example of the former German Chancellor shows the prospects of success of Empowering Leadership in crises situations. Professor Miriam Müthel is convinced that even in the current crisis we should not rely on individual heroic figures and wait for them to master the situation on their own, but should have confidence in each individual to make a relevant contribution to the fight against COVID-19. To stand a chance against the pandemic, we do not need the outstanding intelligence of an individual leader, but the collective intelligence of every single person. The leaders we need therefore share their decision-making power (but not their responsibility), communicate clearly, trust the abilities of all employees, and coordinate the interaction of everyone involved. In the disaster movies, it is usually the lonely hero who single-handedly saves the world from destruction. "The Corona crisis challenges each and every one of us to think and act," Professor Müthel is convinced. "Together we will overcome these difficult times. And when we have put it behind us, we should remember this realization: What brings us to our goal is not the solitary heroic figure, but heroic solidarity."


As part of the free online session series "Forum Mittelstand" organized by WHU and the Koblenz Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Prof. Dr. Miriam Müthel will talk about leadership in times of crisis on June 10, starting at 4:30 pm. The online session will be held in German.