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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Leadership Practices in a Pandemic

Adam Silver

Adam Silver

Ann Skeet


Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

An international health crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, reinforces the value of a regular practice of ethical leadership. This health crisis, much like global climate warming, knows no borders. Leadership is needed in all corners of society and from all of us. In these moments, the benefits of regularly making decisions with the care and consideration of others in mind become even clearer.

Reviewing the Ethics Center’s Practice of Ethical Leadership and its six tenets provides an action-oriented, practical framework for people in leadership positions and their followers.

Model what you want others to be

The cornerstone of an ethical leadership practice is the character of individual leaders and the model they provide others for expected behavior. Followers want a clear understanding of leaders’ values and a belief that the leader will put the interest of follower’s ahead of the leader’s own interests. Officials in elected and appointed office who are self-quarantining following exposure are one example of model behavior, of placing the public’s interests above their personal freedom for a period of time. Leaders that move quickly and decisively to serve the public over private or organizational goals are another. Adam Silver’s decision to suspend the NBA season once a player tested positive for the virus was one such example.

Honor community

Leaders who can elicit in followers a sense of connection to their community are essential in a public health crisis. We know that strong relationships of mutual respect are a marker of organizational and community health. Where these relationships are already established and authentic, leaders will have an easier time leveraging them to show people how to make individual decisions that keep their neighbors in mind. 

Encourage ethical conduct

Ethical behavior in a public health crisis looks like following local and federal recommendations and mandates. Those over 60, or with compromised health, who do not heed advice to avoid large gatherings and stay home if they are not feeling well increase the risk for the entire population. Right now, leaders can be explaining explicitly why this notion of “flattening the curve” is a responsibility we all share, and enumerating the behaviors that achieve that goal.

Without specific guidance on what ethical conduct is and why, people will spend time deciding everyday things, like the ethics of ordering in food. We do not want sick people delivering food to people staying home in order to avoid getting sick or to recover from illness. A decision by public sector leadership to pay lost wages to gig economy workers or decisions by corporate leaders to provide sick pay to contractors, would reinforce that the ethical behavior in this moment is to stay home from work if you are sick. Period.

Play our positions

Each of us must decide many times throughout a day which of the various positions we hold to prioritize. If I am a parent of young children, how are my duties different than if I am not? If I have elderly parents, what precautions should I responsibly be taking regarding their care?

Professionally, if I manage a team, will I embrace my responsibilities to shepherd them through their uncertainties even when I have many of my own? Reports are emerging about turf battles in the health department. Overall leadership of the effort has changed from Secretary Azar to Vice President Pence. Within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, there is reporting that administrator Seema Verma has spent time trying to reclaim IT services shifted from her control following a high profile e-mail crash that impeded response times, as the virus exploded in the U.S. An ethical leadership practice might set such debates aside for discussion after the crisis has past.

If I am a leader amongst other leaders, what is fair to ask them in their service?

Personifying her understanding of this in compelling fashion, U.S. Congresswoman Katie Porter pressed hard in questioning the head of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Dr. Redfield, about his willingness to cover payment for the care and treatment of people sickened in the coronavirus pandemic during congressional hearings. She displayed a command of the medical, and moral, math he faced in making this decision. She had the information at the ready to underscore her ability to effectively govern in her role as a lawmaker. She knew the numbers. But more importantly, she had a grasp of the moral authority of his position and was able to cite a statue that clearly identified his power to make this call. Dr. Redfield finally capitulated, agreeing to cover care for uninsured people.


Mistakes have been made, on small and large scales, in response to this new virus. How much energy do we invest right now in pointing those out? If we can learn from them, and improve public health outcomes, it is worth it. If there is nothing to be gained from revisiting errors now, it’s best to move on. If leaders are not comfortable acknowledging the fluidity of the situation, and the fact that what they are saying now may be in direct contradiction to what they have said previously because they have new information, followers will struggle to adjust quickly themselves. Where we do have expertise—NIH’s Dr. Fauci comes to mind—we need to courageously share that expertise, even if it conflicts with prevailing commentary from those with less information or relevant skill.

Address things systemically wherever possible

We see leaders in these early days of U.S. coronavirus contagion struggling to use even the systems that do exist, such as the global testing capacity available from the World Health Organization, let alone developing new ones. Ethical deliberation begins with using data and information to make decisions. Without data, ethical decision making is far more challenging.

More broadly, most planning and preventive activities are systemic in nature. The returns on such activities are longer term, and therefore do not get adequate attention or resources. Every elected official who has fought forcefully for emergency preparedness and every person who has prepared contributes to systems that are well enough supported to provide flexibility in times of crisis.

We are all leaders in our own lives. Here are some questions you can ask yourself if you want to be providing ethical leadership in your life during an international health crisis based on the practices described above.

1. Am I modeling the behavior I want for others? Am I speaking honestly but calmly, to allow those around me to begin to understand our shared reality, or possible reality? As I act, am I pointing a way towards a desired, future state that is positive? 

2. Am I honoring the relationships I have with people? Am I strengthening relationships in my various communities by demonstrating care and concern for others? Am I acting kindly and with empathy towards those most directly affected? Have I remembered the people I have special obligations to because of our unique relationships as family members, co-workers, or neighbors?

3. Grounded in these various relationships, what roles do I hold formally? What promises or oaths have I taken explicitly or implicitly by virtue of the job I have, the place I live, or the expertise I hold?

4. How can I help all affected move past inevitable mistakes? Am I emphasizing learning so we can move forward? Am I being clear about expectations I have of others? Am I allowing typically held expectations to be relaxed in the face of this crisis?

5. Am I doing all I can to influence the big picture, long-term outcome for myself, my loved ones, and my community? If I have the expertise and stamina to contribute beyond my immediate obligations, am I acting to contribute what I have and know to improve the situation? If I have resources at my disposal that will shift the outcome for others, am I making them available?


Mar 13, 2020

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