March 28, 2020


The COVID-19 crisis and leadership lessons from General Stanley McCrystal

Dear PERF members,

I’ve been thinking about everything we’ve heard from police chiefs and sheriffs over the last few weeks about how they’re handling the COVID crisis, and I keep thinking that this feels so different from anything we’ve experienced before.

Yes, we’ve been through many types of large-scale critical incidents, with 9/11 at the top of everyone’s list, but also events like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the DC Sniper case in 2002, the economic collapse of 2008, the riots in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities in 2014, and others.

All of these previous crises have helped prepare us for COVID, but COVID feels different – starting with the fact that it’s directly affecting the entire nation, and much of the world.  In other situations, police and sheriffs’ departments look to each other for mutual aid, but what do you do when the agencies around you are facing the same problems? So everyone is all in it; we don’t really have any bystanders.

And there’s so much uncertainty about COVID.  When a hurricane is over, it’s over; but even the best experts can’t tell us when we’ll be done with COVID.

Also, there’s no playbook; everyone is calling an audible. Time and again we see departments showing creativity and ingenuity, inventing solutions on the fly.  For example, testing capabilities for COVID are still much too scarce, so departments are using infrared thermometers to screen employees at every shift, identifying anyone who has a fever and might have been exposed to the virus.  And then they give employees a different color-coded wristband every day, so everyone can see that everyone around them has passed the test. 

Meanwhile, sheriffs are working to reduce their jail populations by obtaining release orders for those who are not considered a public safety risk. And they’re taking action to prevent the virus from getting into jails, by keeping visitors out and using video systems for visitation or meetings with attorneys. One sheriff told us he’s had jail inmates who did not want to leave, because they felt the jail offered better protection against the virus than they could provide for themselves if they were released. So the department is helping those inmates find secure housing on the outside.

And the response to homeless populations in some cities has been phenomenal, as police agencies secure hotel rooms and other accommodations for them and try to help them get through the crisis.

The new normal is that no one can gather in groups, so everyone is becoming skilled in electronic communications. And police chiefs don’t know who might catch the virus tomorrow, so they’re looking forward and planning who will step up and take the place of a deputy chief or commander who has to self-quarantine. And because the virus is so extremely contagious, one of the first responses in most departments was to recalibrate their response to low-level calls.

There’s also something different about the “feel” of the COVID crisis, because it’s personal as well as professional. Many of us have already received cellphone alerts with bad news about a friend or colleague who is sick. Everyone in a police or sheriff’s department must do their daily work as professionals – even as they worry about their own family members and loved ones.

So smart chiefs and sheriffs are telling us that a big part of their job now is asking their employees what they need, and reassuring them that the department will be there for them if they need any kind of help.

Chiefs and sheriffs also are working to reassure their communities. For nearly 30 years, police have been developing community policing, and the crisis we’re facing today may be the ultimate test of how police can calm a frightened community – in spite of the handicap of keeping a safe physical distance from community members. 

There’s also such a strong sense of urgency.  No one has a minute to waste when lives are in the balance.

I’ve been thinking about how all of this requires tremendous leadership.  And the other day, I happened to see a New York Times op-ed about the qualities of leadership, by Stanley McChrystal.  I was struck at how relevant it seems for police chiefs and sheriffs today. In his column, General McChrystal translates principles of leadership in the military to other fields of endeavor.  I’ve excerpted the key points of the McChrystal op-ed below.

And instead of providing Weekend Clips today, I thought I might share something more inspirational.  Two videos, here and here, demonstrate how people are finding comfort in music.

Thanks again for everything you do for PERF, for your employees, and for your communities.




What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis

By Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell

Mr. McChrystal is a former Army general and the founder of the McChrystal Group. Mr. Fussell is a former Navy Seal and the president of the McChrystal Group.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the job of every leader in the U.S. Special Operations community changed. In the ensuing years of fighting a highly complex, networked enemy, we redesigned how our organization communicated, shared information, made decisions and, most critically, maintained a cohesive culture while operating in almost every corner of the globe.

We’re seeing a similar challenge today — except this time, it’s facing the leadership of practically every organization in the world.

Leaders must be visible with their plans, honest with their words and adaptable with their actions — all while maintaining compassion for the situation and the impact it is having on their team.

Here’s what that means.

First, don’t hunker down. Today’s leaders must stand and be visible to their organizations, their communities, and their families.

Second, demonstrate candor — and demand it from the leaders below youIn combat, when things look bad, the front-line troops always know it before the leadership. Denying reality makes your people assume you’re either lying or out of touch.

Organizations can handle bad news and tough times if they feel their leaders are focused on solving the issues at hand. Today’s leaders must be honest with their people to a level that will and should feel uncomfortable.

Third, give up more authority than feels natural. Fighting through complexity requires quick and informed action at the edge. This is dependent upon fast, transparent and inclusive communication. It’s tempting in times of crisis to grab the reins and yank back, but this will be more disruptive than it is helpful. Be connected, listen, and adapt, based on what your front line is telling you.

Finally, be more compassionate than you think you need to be. As your organization disperses to remote-work status, the loss of personal interactions will quickly sink in. It will be easy for leaders to overlook the fear and stress their people are feeling because of this isolation. All of us learn by watching our teammates, and we gain confidence through informal feedback from our colleagues or bosses. Your organization has lost that person-to-person contact. You must immediately take your culture online, and learn to reinforce camaraderie, esteem, and compassion, via digital platforms.

“Digital leadership” was not in the job description for our generation, but it became a critical skill for all of us to learn. It’s harder to express sympathy through a computer screen, harder to deliver nuanced criticism when not in person, harder to read tone and body language. You can and must learn these skills, but it will take focus and effort.

We are now weathering a once-in-a-hundred-year event, and Americans are hurt — physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Leaders at all levels in society need to embrace the changes this crisis brings rather than struggle against it. Your people need you. This is your moment, and you can rise to it.

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