COVID-19 leaders study

Understanding spontaneous leaders

How can we help good people lead great grassroots responses?


When COVID-19 became a pandemic, we knew that spontaneous leaders and grassroots efforts would emerge all over. We felt a moral obligation to help them to succeed.

Unfortunately, we didn’t know how.

So we conducted a field study to understand how we can expand our services to support spontaneous leaders in actual crisis situations. The study was a qualitative interview study of individuals who had emerged as leaders in a grassroots response to the COVID-19 crisis, and community experts who regularly work with grassroots efforts.

We sought to answer the following questions:

  1. How can CCL help Spontaneous Leaders during the COVID-19 crisis?
  2. What support do Spontaneous Leaders need to emerge and be successful in the midst of a crisis?
  3. How can CCL services help good ideas become great grassroots efforts?

We were delighted to receive many offers of help, including the UX Research team from Tableau Software, a number of General Assembly graduates, along with several people from our professional networks. The rather large team proved very valuable in finding study participants!

Study design

Type of study Qualitative interview
Data collection May-July 2020
Participants Individuals who had started or tried to start a novel effort in response to COVID-19, and individuals who have experience supporting grassroots crisis responses.
Recruiting Personal invitation to individuals found on social media, news media, or by word of mouth.
Total interviews 11 individuals interviewed
12 hours of interview recordings


Participants were individuals who had emerged as Spontaneous Leaders (SLs) in a grassroots response to the COVID-19 crisis, and community experts that regularly work with SLs. The first group shared their personal experiences with starting and leading a grassroots effort. The second group provided their observations on the experiences and challenges SLs face, based on having worked with many SLs.

A total of 11 individuals were interviewed:

  • 5 SL
    3 community expert
    3 both SL and community expert
  • 5 male
    6 female
  • 7 American (1 working in Puerto Rico)
    2 Canadian
    1 Spanish (living in France)
    1 Sudanese (living in USA)


The study confirmed that Spontaneous Leaders (SLs) emerged in response to COVID-19 and are likely to do so in other crises. It also affirms that improvised leadership is emotionally and logistically difficult, and that SLs would benefit from the kind of training and empowerment support services that align with CCL’s mission.

Specifically, the study suggests that SLs would benefit from services that

  • Provide moral and motivational support while teaching the skills and mindset needed to start and run a successful grassroots response effort.
  • Guide SLs through the common journey of a grassroots crisis response — from ideation to stabilization – using the principles of Design and Entrepreneurial Thinking.
  • Help SLs develop situational understanding and knowledge, especially understanding crisis response practices and the resources that may be available.
  • Help SLs identify and develop connections to their broader community networks.
  • Help SLs identify and find the professional services that they might need, e.g., legal, financial, marketing, and personal mental wellness services.

The study revealed a critical need to tailor service delivery to the needs and attentional resources of individual SLs. Even the small number of SLs interviewed exhibited substantial variety in backgrounds, skill sets, and bandwidth for taking in new information.

Finally, the study underscored the difficulty of identifying and reaching SLs in the midst of a crisis. This suggests that spreading awareness of the role and importance of SLs to crisis response, and of resources to support them, prior to a crisis arising is an essential component of successful service delivery.


  1. Spontaneous Leaders emerged to fill gaps in the institutionalized response to the COVID-19 crisis, and reported a need to help SLs get started, continue, and grow their efforts.
  2. Spontaneous Leaders face significant challenges to getting started, maintaining motivation, and keeping momentum going forward.
  3. Spontaneous Leader effectiveness is strongly correlated with their situational awareness
  4. Many SL efforts are focused on “brokering the last mile,” and are instrumental in filling local gaps, providing intimate knowledge of and communications with community members in need.
  5. Personal relationships and social networks are critical to a Spontaneous Leader’s success.
  6. Without the legitimacy and credibility imparted by being part of an established organization, SLs may struggle to win trust and build community confidence in their intentions and ability to deliver.
  7. Many Spontaneous Leaders eventually have need of professional advice or help, but may not recognize it, and often have difficulty in obtaining affordable services when they do.


  1. There is a need for services to support Spontaneous Leaders in the midst of a crisis, and help good ideas become great grassroots efforts.
  2. Finding and connecting with SLs to offer them support in the midst of a crisis poses a substantial challenge.
  3. Services must be targeted and customizable to the needs and attentional resources of individual SLs.
  4. Even simple encouragement and motivational advice offering moral support, courage, and basic guidance has the potential to inspire SLs to keep going, and prevent them from failing because of basic misconceptions.
  5. SLs need to develop skills and knowledge needed to start and manage a grassroots effort even as they are doing it.
  6. New social connections during a crisis may be key for SLs to gain access to needed information and resources.
  7. Social connections established prior to a crisis may play a significant role in the likelihood of success.
  8. By failing to recognize a need for professional support, or failing to secure needed professional services, SLs may jeopardize the success of their efforts or put themselves at personal risk.


  1. CCL is on the right track, and should continue with its mission!
  2. Rather than attempting to market services directly to SLs, it may be more effective to rely on local communities and response organizations for referrals to CCL’s materials and services.
  3. CCL should leverage its training program to promote awareness of the value of Spontaneous Leaders and grassroots crisis efforts.
  4. Offer clear, specific, and actionable materials and services, rather than generalized principles and generic services.
  5. Structure access to materials and services to address specific questions and needs, rather than according to general topic areas.
  6. Provide materials and services requiring varying levels of commitment.
  7. Develop inspirational materials that foster appreciation of SLs, and offer SLs emotional encouragement.
  8. Focus materials and services on fostering the skills and knowledge needed by SLs, prioritizing those that are not generally the focus of existing training programs.
  9. Develop materials and services to help SLs understand the common journey of a grassroots crisis response — from ideation to stabilization.
  10. Create opportunities for people to develop the confidence, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to establish new social connections quickly in a crisis.
  11. Develop organizational values and practices of mediating social connections whenever possible.
  12. Find ways of leveraging CCL connections to help individual SLs in an actual crisis, e.g., through personal introductions.
  13. Support systematic means of providing SLs access to new social connections, e.g., through social platforms or automated brokering software.
  14. Create opportunities for people to develop and strengthen their local social networks.
  15. Develop organizational values and practices of valuing and strengthening social connections.
  16. Leverage CCL activities to strengthen social connections among local response agencies, the communities they serve, and neighboring communities.
  17. Develop materials and services to help SLs understand what kinds of professional support they might need, recognize when are likely to need it, and know how they might find it.
  18. Support systematic means of providing SLs access to affordable professional services, e.g., through social platforms or automated brokering software.

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