Management Prof Looks at Different Leadership Styles and Results During Pandemic

Matthew Crayne

Matthew Crayne talks to colleagues at School of Business faculty retirement party in 2019. (Photo by Hans Pennink)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 27, 2020) — The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented multiple opportunities for research, in topics spanning virology, contagion, emergency responses and the sharing of information and misinformation. Matthew Crayne of the School of Business is studying yet another angle: how different ways of thinking predict how leaders deal with the pandemic.

Crayne, an assistant professor of Management, suggests that the way leaders make sense of the world, a concept called “sensemaking,” directly predicts how they will respond to problems. He and his co-researcher, Kelsey Medeiros of the University of Nebraska Omaha, decided to apply their research on the CIP (Charismatic, Ideological and Pragmatic) leadership model to the pandemic, by comparing leadership styles and responses.

“All world leaders, all across the globe, were facing this universal problem,” Crayne said. “What happens when their sensemaking is essential for success? It was a unique opportunity and a natural extension of our work.”

The paper, “Making Sense of Crisis: Charismatic, Ideological, and Pragmatic Leadership in Response to COVID-19,” compares three world leaders during the current pandemic: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Each exemplifies a different viewpoint and result.

Charismatic Trudeau

In the CIP model, charismatic leaders are characterized as forward thinking and hopeful, with a strong vision of the future. Their crucial attribute is their positive outlook, although their optimistic approach may lead to trying to accomplish too many things at once. Examples of charismatic leaders include Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolph Hitler.

Trudeau campaigned for prime minister on a platform of hope, and approached his two terms with confidence for the future. He responded to the pandemic the same way, maintaining “On the other side of this, when the economy comes roaring back, you will define our path forward, a path towards a better, more equal society. That’s what we’re doing together.”

Ideological Bolsonaro

Ideological leaders look to the past, working to return to a vision of previously established values. They appeal to values, have a negative viewpoint, and pursue few goals. This approach builds a core of a tightly knit followers who are more likely to deny evidence. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are good examples of ideological leaders.

Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro has talked about returning to the past greatness of Brazil. That too, was the focus of his COVID response, dismissing the seriousness of the pandemic in favor of getting back to business. “Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept,” he said. “We must, yes, get back to normal.”

Pragmatic Merkel

Pragmatic leaders are problem-focused, rely on rational arguments and, in contrast to the other two styles, do not rely on emotional appeals and focus on the present. Falling into the pragmatist model are Benjamin Franklin and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Merkel, sometimes called the “scientist in chief” with her PhD in chemistry and background in research, is a textbook pragmatist. She has taken a cautious approach, small sure steps to problem solving, and supports evidence-based policy.

Even as COVID cases decreased in Germany, Merkel stuck to her guns.  She said, “The more we endure at the beginning of the pandemic and thus push the infection down, the more we serve not only human health but economic and social life,” she said.

Pragmatism Wins, This Time

In late spring, as Crayne and Medeiros completed their study, COVID-19 cases in Brazil were climbing, Canadian cases were low, and Germany had a mortality rate lower than its neighbors and other highly developed economies. Another pragmatist, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, took steps that resulted in her country becoming COVID- free for three months. It seems that rationality won out in this case.

But Crayne points out that success within the CIP model depends on the approach matching the needs of a situation: The right leader for the right time, whether in politics or business.

“The ideological approach is useful when the world is chaotic to the point of distraction,” Crayne said. For instance, it’s a helpful model when an established company is challenged by an upstart since ideological leaders appeal to corporate values to motivate action. “Charismatic leaders … are essential when you need dramatic shifts, as when a new CEO takes over and establishes a new vision. They bring people together and bring a sense of hope.”

Crayne, who holds a PhD from Penn State and joined UAlbany in 2018, teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in leadership and organizational behavior and serves as the faculty mentor for the World of Business Living Learning Community.