Three Big Points

Humanity: A Leader’s Secret Weapon

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Leading through a crisis with humanity is not simple, acknowledges Morela Hernandez, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “But it’s not an impossible task,” she contends.

Hernandez, this week’s guest on the Three Big Points podcast, explains that we know from social science how to address the key issues of leading through difficult times at the individual, relational, collective, and contextual levels. “The trick is that we have to do this all at once and in collaboration with each other,” she says. “The trick is that we need to be inspired by our leaders to move forward coherently and consistently together. The trick is that we need to tap into our individual values within each of our contexts so that we can recognize our common humanity.”

In this episode of Three Big Points, Hernandez explains the core tenets of leading with humanity and offers specific and actionable advice leaders can follow during this urgent time. This heartening approach to leadership requires developing what she described in a recent article for MIT SMR as “an awareness of and attentiveness to our collective call to action, our individual privilege, and our duty to others.” Leaders are sure to find Hernandez’s advice both personally fulfilling and organizationally effective.

For Further Reading
Morela Hernandez is the Donald and Lauren Morel Emerging Scholar in Business Administration and an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where she researches and teaches about issues around leadership and diversity. Her most recent article for MIT Sloan Management Review is “Projecting Leadership and Humanity in a Crisis.” You can learn more about her work on her website,

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Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each week, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.

Morela Hernandez: There’s opportunities there that are wasted if we just focus internally. There’s opportunities lost in terms of untapped resources, collaboration, and cooperation to come up with solutions that we ourselves do not have. People compartmentalize sort of how they act at work versus how they act at home. And what I’ve been hearing from manufacturing companies, for example, is demand is up — they’re trying to produce as much as they can. And then they’re also trying to create guidelines to ensure their workers’ safety. But they have these funny/not-funny issues where you come into a plant, and your temperature is taken, and you’re trying to be socially distanced and whatnot, but then you see an outbreak that actually resulted from the six guys who were carpooling to work that day. So people, I think, are having a hard time thinking about this as a problem that transcends all of their spheres of reality and influence.

Paul Michelman: That’s Morela Hernandez, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She studies the ethics of leadership — which might never have been more important than it is today in our current crisis. There are challenges arising, Hernandez says, at multiple levels of leadership, including:

  • Individual factors, like lacking a coherent direction from a leader.
  • Relational-level factors, like the challenge of connecting interpersonally because of social distancing and the psychological strain that comes with it.
  • Problems at the collective level, where local businesses falling apart might impact the overall economy.
  • And then the context-level factors — things like the global environment.

And the truth is, the epidemic is hitting us at every one of these levels at once, and it can be hard to prioritize. For Hernandez, the answer lies in leading with humanity. That framework plays out differently at each one of the levels she described. Let’s start with the individual.

Morela Hernandez: What we know from social science and behavioral science, in particular, is that people have limited cognitive capacity in times of crisis — because they’re bombarded with new information that they have to process. And so it’s very common for us to have cognitive overload that can impede accurate or effective decision-making. It’s difficult to understand what information to process first, how to interpret it, and how to know how it fits into the larger picture. People start taking cognitive shortcuts because of the psychological discomfort of that overload.

Paul Michelman: This is something everyone is experiencing right now, and the normal solution for such overload is to look to a leader to help show the path forward.

Morela Hernandez: Take, for instance, the example of enacting large organizational change initiatives. I consult with a great number of organizations that are designing and executing large-scale change. What you typically see is that the CEO and his or her top management team, they essentially become a broken record. They repeat the same simple message over and over and over every time that they speak to their employees. That’s so that one simple message can guide a very large number of employees in times of uncertainty.

Paul Michelman: In today’s crisis, that gets a bit more complicated. The message of flattening the curve was simple and clear in the early days, but how do we move forward?

Morela Hernandez: In the U.S., our response to this pandemic has been fractured. Some states are reopening, some are not. The message from the White House has been unclear, if not contradictory and alarming at times. Our cognitive load is arguably increasing, and soon — without a clear guiding message that is repeated over and over, a message that draws on our collective values — I would argue we risk the same level of cognitive overload and emotional paralysis. So how a leader frames the situation is incredibly meaningful to how we understand and respond. We respond to crisis more effectively when it’s framed as an opportunity to rise to the occasion — as an exercise of individual agency and our values.

Paul Michelman: Thinking about leadership from the relational and collective level is also vital at this time, Hernandez says.

Morela Hernandez: We know a lot about how local communities play a role. Some research by colleagues, Rao and Greve in 2017, looked at the Spanish flu — actually, community responses to the Spanish flu. They found that communities with good volunteer networks respond better to disasters because these communities are connected. My research with current and past colleagues at the Darden School UVA on organizational resilience supports this assertion. We have found that the community’s response — and more than that, the active involvement of community members as it’s related to an organizational crisis — is directly related to the organization’s ability to recover and thrive postcrisis. Supporting local businesses through community-based coalitions is a promising step. It’s one way we can start addressing the economic collapse that’s happening at the city and the state level.

Paul Michelman: Finally, all leaders need to be thinking about the broader context here and how we are all interconnected.

Morela Hernandez: By that I mean the environment — that includes cultural norms, the government, and so forth. Often, individuals think that context is something that just exists. In the U.S, our attention has been on flattening the curve. In countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador — you will be heartbroken to see the mass graves that have been dug to bury hundreds, if not thousands. Testing isn’t even a remote possibility. In the context of the developing world, people are not flattening the curve. People are planning for trying to mitigate impending famine.

Paul Michelman: Hernandez points out the direct link here to solving problems in a systemic way with strong leadership.

Morela Hernandez: We’ve had significant supply chain issues that have caused farmers to destroy tons of produce and dump thousands of gallons of milk down the drain. Our first-world problems could solve the difficulties that others are experiencing, right? So how can we get those tons of produce to countries that are starting to experience widespread famine? You know, if we can get a banana from Costa Rica to the U.S. so that it’s included in my Whole Foods delivery order, can we not ship excess food to those most in need, whether it’s abroad or in the U.S. to those experiencing food insecurity?

Paul Michelman: Leaders who think about the broader context of the world can also learn lessons from previous epidemics.

Morela Hernandez: If we look at Asia and Africa — regions that have learned a great deal from past epidemics such as SARS and Ebola — we know that contact tracing takes an army of people to be carried out effectively. Then consider our unemployment number, the greatest since the Great Depression. We could consider retooling and employing some of the millions of Americans that are out of work to help in the monumental task of contact tracing. Could we leverage our local community networks at the city and the state level to generate a workforce of contact tracers? Doing so would, again, require a high-level mandate from our leaders, an inspirational vision of solidarity to bring us together. So, look — leading with humanity is not simple. This pandemic has hit us at every level. But I would argue it’s not an impossible task.

Paul Michelman: Which brings us back to the idea of executives taking humanity into account when they are making all kinds of decisions.

Morela Hernandez: We know from social science how to address some key issues at the individual, relational, collective, and context levels. The trick is that we have to do this all at once and in collaboration with each other. The trick is that we need to be inspired by our leaders to move forward coherently and consistently together. The trick is that we need to tap into our individual values within each of our contexts so that we can recognize our common humanity.

Paul Michelman: That’s Morela Hernandez, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and a regular contributor to MIT Sloan Management Review.

And now, three big points about leading through this crisis — with humanity.

Number one: Even if you aren’t leading an organization, there are things you can do to lead yourself, your family, and your community through this time.

Morela Hernandez: One is, obviously, stay home — follow local social distancing guidelines. Another easy one is donate blood. Help your local community with care packages or donating food. Think about, professionally, what are you in terms of your expertise positioned to contribute? [Another one] is to spend money on causes and businesses that you believe in. Figure out what marginalized groups in your community need. Public-private partnerships are a wonderful example of this. Help friends and family with child care-related issues.

Paul Michelman: Number two: The right way to lead right now is by focusing on what others need.

Morela Hernandez: When we start focusing on others in terms of what are their problems, what are my areas of expertise — your focus is on action; your focus is generative. And what we know is that through this generativity, you inspire others to do the same. That’s how you actually build your leadership capacity.

Paul Michelman: And number three: A time of crisis like this shows the ways communities can band together and how inspirational leaders can step forward.

Morela Hernandez: Local leaders are an important piece of the puzzle. But without a guiding vision, we are less likely to succeed in making sustainable change. What we also know, though, is that in times of crisis, it creates an opportunity for individuals to rise to the occasion. I was thinking of Martin Luther King, and I teach the case in my leadership classes. As we look in hindsight, we think, you know, he was extraordinary. As we study the history of how he rose to that position, he was a leader at the right time, in the right place, with the right people around him to support him and to guide him in taking a leadership role. And so as we think about our current crisis, I would say we have an incredible opportunity to identify new leaders and offer support in any way we can to develop that guiding vision.

Paul Michelman: That’s all for this week’s Three Big Points. Remember, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. If you’d like to support our show, please post a rating or a review on whatever podcast platform you prefer.

Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producers are Michele DeFilippo and Mackenzie Wise.


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Elizabeth Hamblin
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