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Leading in Turbulent and Uncertain Times

Dr. Raj Pillai

Dr. Rajnandini (Raj) Pillai, Professor of Management and Director of the CSUSM Center for Leadership, Innovation, and Mentorship Building (CLIMB), researches charismatic and transformational leadership.

In business and in politics, Dr. Raj Pillai’s research has shown that in crisis situations, people often look for a leader who is inspiring, has a vision that challenges the status quo and presents a viable solution to the crisis. This leader is then often invested with charisma. Riding on the strength of that charisma, leaders can motivate and inspire their followers to make sacrifices for the collective good and get behind a new transformational agenda. That charisma of course lasts only until the leader is seen as successfully handling the crisis (e.g., Lee Iacocca in the early days of the Chrysler turnaround, Rudy Giuliani after 9-11) and can wane in later years.

Charisma, which is one of the hallmarks of the transformational leadership approach comes from the unlikeliest of sources and takes many forms. Dr. Pillai’s research has shown that it is manifested at all levels of the organization. Today, as we confront the crisis of Covid-19 and the nation-wide protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many leaders have emerged from different segments of our society. People have invested Dr. Anthony Fauci with unlikely and uncharacteristic charisma trusting in his words, generally following his guidelines about safety during the pandemic, and also paying tribute to him in unusual ways (e.g., making doughnuts with his likeness!). Several young people are leading the Black Lives Matter protests for change around the world.  There is a feeling that this might be a turning point. Locally, you see Jim Floros, President and CEO of the San Diego Food bank successfully making a plea for volunteers and funds to feed the hungry during this unprecedented crisis.


Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Health and Infectious Disease Director


Jim Floros, CEO San Diego Food Bank at Mira Costa Food Pantry

What are some of the lessons for leadership from the research and practice (interviews with guests in our In the Executive’s Chair Course over the years) on leadership during crisis? How can we better lead our organizations through these turbulent times?

  • If you are at a level in the organization where you can bring about change, focus on what the future might look like, paint a realistic picture of what is needed to get the organization there, and inspire your people with confidence and frequent communication.
  • At any level of leadership, care for your employees and demonstrate emotional intelligence (especially self-awareness and empathy). Value everyone! In the College of Business, last semester when we were forced to move classes online in the middle of the semester, the qualities that the students appreciated the most were not technical excellence in online education but caring and concern for their wellbeing and success.
  • Never lose your humanity even when you have to make tough decisions. One of the toughest decisions that leaders have to make is to let people go. However, if you communicate honestly and make decisions that adhere to your culture and values, it will serve you and your people well in the long term.
  • Above all, serve as an inspiring role model making the same or more sacrifices than you ask of your people. You will be surprised at how much they will respect and trust you….and perhaps see you as their charismatic savior! 

About Dr. Raj Pillai

Dr. Raj Pillai has been fascinated with leadership in crisis situations from long before she entered her doctoral program in the United States. In fact, she grew up in India reading the biographies and autobiographies of Gandhi, Lincoln, Churchill and others. Her research has focused on the crisis and charisma both in organizations and in the context of presidential elections.