Your Organization Needs a Coronavirus “War Room”
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Leadership Apr 7, 2020

Your Organization Needs a Coronavirus “War Room”

And other advice on making tough choices during a pandemic.

A CEO consults with a colleague.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Harry M. Kraemer

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles based on Kellogg Executive Education webinars focused on COVID-19.


Harry Kraemer has long espoused a brand of values-based leadership that relies heavily on self-reflection, so that leaders can identify what really matters and what sort of leader they want to be.

This is all in the interest of doing the right thing for their organization, their employees, and their customers. But, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, those priorities can sometimes be at cross-purposes and “the right thing” can be far from obvious.

“It’s an uncertain world and we have an awful lot of things to balance,” says Kraemer, who is the former CEO of Baxter International and currently serves on 10 boards of directors, including for several healthcare organizations. It’s a role that has given him a broad perspective on how to lead through the coronavirus crisis.

Kraemer is also a clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School and shared some of his advice in a recent webinar from Kellogg Executive Education.

To start, leaders must ensure that they are getting input from all perspectives within their organizations, as well as from trusted external sources.

For example, NorthShore University HealthSystem, upon whose board Kraemer sits, has convened a “war room” that includes not just doctors and nurses, but also other key voices, such as maintenance workers. The CEO is also in constant contact with local and state officials. For hospital leaders, this helps them decide how to do the right thing in terms of keeping both patients and staff healthy, as well as helping the surrounding healthcare community by sharing resources.

Kraemer urges all leaders to convene a trusted and diverse war room so that no important vantage points are being overlooked. “I would argue that no leader, if they’re honest, is bright enough to figure out all of that” on their own, he says.

Hospitals are under one sort of intense pressure right now. At the other extreme are firms that are facing a severe slowdown in business. They may be weighing the need for layoffs. How transparent should those leaders be as they make these hard choices?

“In my mind, there are very few things you cannot openly talk about,” Kraemer says. And given that your employees will certainly notice piles of inventory accumulating or the inability to serve customers, it would be doing them a disservice to ignore the obvious.

Tell employees what you do know and what you don’t yet know. Then, make sure that you share information that demonstrates that you relate to their fears. Say, “If, in fact, we have to have layoffs, here’s what our policies for severance would be. Here’s what we’re going to do to help you maintain your healthcare,” he says, adding that you should make sure people in the organization are scouring the federal CARES Act to help laid off or furloughed staff maximize their available benefits.

Another concern leaders have right now is that they’re being forced to make decisions with incomplete information—when will businesses reopen, when will the patient surge peak in a particular area, etc.

But, Kraemer insists, that is not an excuse to stop communicating with your teams.

“If I’m a leader and I’m in a crisis period, I’ll never have as much information as I’d like,” he says. But “it’s the uncertainty that requires leadership.”

You can watch the full webinar here, and see previous articles from this series here.

You can also read about Kraemer’s two guiding principles for leading organizations through the COVID-19 crisis.

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the senior editor at Kellogg Insight.

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