BCG Henderson Institute

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History is filled with stories of leaders who rise to the challenge of a crisis and those who crumble under its weight. How are leaders handling today’s crisis, and what can we learn from what they have said and done?

We recently analyzed leadership performance and found that companies run by strong CEOs generate shareholder returns more than 20 points higher than those run by weak CEOs. They overperform by leading differently along many dimensions.

The coronavirus crisis has stretched and put those dimensions to the test. Leaders have had to protect the health of their people, maintain morale and business momentum, navigate demand shocks, and adjust strategy. And they have had to do it all remotely—knowing too that industry volatility and CEO turnover are highest in crises. (See the exhibit.)

In our conversations with more than 100 CEOs about leading through the crisis, they emphasized six themes that are consistent with what we found in our long-term study on CEO performance. We heard many stories emphasizing the importance of purpose as a guide to action, a long-term approach to strategy, and the tracking of high-frequency signals. Since the crisis began, most CEOs have spent even more energy taking care of their people, communicating authentically, and honing their own leadership abilities.

Purpose Guides Action

Purpose anchors an organization’s day-to-day activities to a higher goal. It is a company’s reason for being that underlies what it does, makes, or sells. CEOs have drawn from the well of purpose to handle the crisis. “By reminding teams of our purpose and why we are working hard, we can do more to handle the crisis, strengthen our reason for existing, and help a greater number of people,” one CEO said. Another told us, “My people are asking how we are going to help, both in communities and globally. As CEOs, we need to think about how we can help societies and how giving our people a sense of power to create some good links to our value proposition.”

One CEO talked about how purpose enabled her to help “people move beyond grief to action” while another emphasized that “by reminding teams of our purpose and why we are working hard, we can do more to handle the crisis and strengthen our reason for existing.”

One company that didn’t have a purpose before the pandemic is now developing one. “It isn’t just useful now, it will also be hugely useful for the future, especially if the crisis lasts another year or two,” the CEO explained. “Purpose motivates a lot of people, especially when you can articulate that what you are doing is more than just making money.”


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