Sunday Message: Leadership Under COVID-19

Dean Jon Levin writes to the Stanford GSB community sharing research and intellectual leadership from students and faculty.

March 29, 2020

There have been some unexpected pleasures: a virtual dinner with siblings and cousins; FaceTime calls with old friends in similar circumstances; seeing students and staff in Zoom town halls. But it is hard to adapt to interacting through a 12” screen, and to worrying about the health of family members and friends.

The magnitude of the current challenge is becoming clear. This week, three million Americans filed unemployment claims. One out of fifty U.S. workers lost their jobs. If we look to China as a model for containment, estimates put their decline in GDP at 40%. In the U.S., that corresponds to $2 trillion in lost output every three months. Economists use Okun’s Law to connect output and employment, which projects a national unemployment rate of 25%. That would mean forty million workers displaced, struggling to make ends meet and support their families.

We face a terrible choice between human lives and economic well-being. The unprecedented scale of government relief will help, and more will be necessary. The threat looms even larger in countries with fewer resources. This week, I spoke to one of our students in India, who observed that the lock-down of a billion people may be both the right public health strategy — and a human catastrophe. To navigate the challenge globally, to protect lives and well-being, we will need leadership that is both bold and wise, as well as individual and collective heroism.

Members of the GSB community continue to think beyond our (virtual) campus. To give a few examples, our faculty have been developing ideas for research and intellectual leadership, including surveys of business decision-making, analyses of financial market interventions, and modeling strategies to protect healthcare workers. Students have organized to procure healthcare equipment from manufacturers in China. Two of our physician-students are on the front lines of patient care in Canada and Nigeria.

Our local challenges may seem small in comparison, but they are meaningful. In a crisis, great institutions not only must continue to function, they should rise to the occasion in fulfilling their missions. This week we will begin a spring quarter like no other. We will offer new classes inviting leaders to speak about the pandemic, and providing students with the opportunity to chronicle their experience. As I have written before, there undoubtedly will be some mistakes along the way, but there also will be an enormous amount of learning and innovation, as we translate GSB academics, community, and culture to a new environment.

As we start spring quarter, we should remember to support one another in a period of unusual, unexpected, and likely prolonged stress. I hope everyone is able to find some way to incorporate a degree of normalcy, and even levity, into the surreal day-to-day experience. It might be a meal with family, an exercise session, or even reading a book to avoid looking at a screen that helps you sustain strength and optimism.

Thank you again for helping the GSB rise to the occasion in fulfilling its mission at this critical time.


Jon Levin
Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean

More Updates from the Leadership

May 01, 2023
Being exposed to differing views is essential in business education — and business leadership.
October 24, 2022
Dean Jon Levin writes about the ingredients needed to create an innovative ecosystem for Stanford Business magazine.
April 18, 2022
Dean Jon Levin writes about the business opportunities and responsibilities that come with technological advancement for Stanford Business magazine.