Crisis Leadership in Barbados During the Initial Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Vanessa L. Deane
New York University

Jason Ramel
New York University

Publication Date: 2022


This study brings a small-island perspective to the broader discussion of disaster leadership by examining the crisis leadership attributes of the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, and her Acting Prime Minister, Santia Bradshaw, during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We reviewed frameworks of crisis leadership in the literature on emergency management and used this review to assess the Prime Ministers’ press briefings and speeches from March through May 2020. Our content analysis showed that sensemaking, meaning making, and orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination were the three most prevalent crisis leadership attributes displayed by the two leaders during the first two months of the pandemic. The paper concludes with a brief reflection on the implications of these findings for global leaders beyond this pandemic, in the face of threats pertaining to climate-related disasters and disruptions that are disproportionately impacting the Caribbean region.


Even as studies and reports have emerged highlighting the superior performance of women-led countries and states during the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbados, under the historic leadership of Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, has been conspicuously absent from these discourses (Purvis & Stober, 20201; Sergent & Stajkovic, 20202). Consider that Barbados had only 190 cases and 10 deaths six months into the pandemic, yet this feat has not been as recognized globally as Jacinda Ardern’s curbing of community transmission just two months after COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand (McGuire et al., 20203). To insert a small-island perspective into a broader discussion of disaster leadership and COVID-19, this study examines the extent to which the decision-making of Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw reflects commonly accepted attributes of crisis leadership found in the literature on emergency management.

Until recently, large global actors like the United States were often thought to be better at anticipating and bouncing back from large scale disasters, notwithstanding instances like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In fact, the United States is so accustomed to providing international disaster assistance to nations and territories that it does not have an adequate framework in place to accept foreign assistance in its own time of need (Mayer et al., 20114). An explanation is offered by Bankoff (20045), who suggests that Western discourse has historically “disastered” certain people and places. For example, islands of the Caribbean were deemed more prone to sickness and disease based on their climates, ecological profile, and cultural ways of life, all of which were viewed as inferior to those of more ”civilized” nations. Bankoff (2004) posits that this early idea of “tropicality,” contributed to colonialism and later transformed into concepts of poverty and underdevelopment. More recently these notions have reappeared as ideas that some nations are more hazardous and disaster prone than others. This leads to the assumption that those countries are most in need of foreign intervention post-disaster, and thus to an under-reliance on, for instance, community-based knowledge.

However, the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this hegemonic framing, as the uneven response of wealthier countries such as the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom in the early months of this crisis paled in comparison to that of a nation like Senegal, reported to have one of the lowest COVID-19 cases per capita in the world despite its limited healthcare system (Horton et al., 20206; Shesgreen, 20207). The United States’ placement among the 10 worst-performing countries for much of 2020 has largely been attributed to factors such as inconsistent messaging from the national government at that time, an ill-equipped public health network, and differences in opinion regarding individual rights versus the power of the state to mandate preventive measures like face coverings (Fitzpatrick, 20208; Kelleher, 20209; Leatherby, 202010; Yong, 202011). Senegal, on the other hand, has credited its effective pandemic response to its prior experience with managing Ebola as well as a robust and consistent communication plan (Chakamba, 202012; Jones & Scherbel-Ball, 202013; Leo & Winn, 202014). Meanwhile, the remarkably successful response of the small island state of Barbados throughout much of 2020 has hardly made international headlines outside the Caribbean region.

Located in the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados is approximately 166 square miles and has a population of about 288,000 people. In June 2018, Mottley became the first female prime minister of Barbados after having been the first woman to lead the Barbados Labour Party. She was the first politician in the country’s history to secure all 30 seats of Parliament, achieving an unprecedented 74.6 percent of the popular vote (Caribbean Affairs Inc., n.d.15). Moreover, Prime Minister Mottley cemented her position as a global advocate for small island developing states (SIDS) within her first four months, during her inaugural speech to the United Nations highlighting their decades-long battle with the devastating effects of climate change (Nicely, 202016).

This case study of Prime Minister Mottley’s initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic explores whether her decision-making, as well as that of her Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw, demonstrates commonly accepted attributes of crisis leadership found in the literature on emergency management. Additionally, this paper briefly discusses whether this example offers leadership and governance implications for countries, regardless of size, threatened with climate-related disasters and disruptions. A final point for consideration is whether the eventual post-pandemic world might better incorporate the perspectives and experiences of a wider range of countries and actors into global discussions and decision-making arenas concerning disaster preparedness and response.

Literature Review

When a disaster strikes, populations look to their leaders to help interpret the situation and to offer reassurance about how soon a return to normalcy can begin (Demiroz & Kapucu, 201217). Public behavior and response are often shaped by how well (or poorly) leaders cultivate trust, demonstrate empathy, and display a steadfast demeanor in their resolve to move through and beyond the crisis (Boin & Hart, 200318). Similarly, Twigg (201319) explained that public attitudes towards politicians and emergency managers depend on the public’s perception of their competence and compassion. Twigg (2013) also emphasized the importance of recognizing the rational basis for doubts among the public and that disaster communication should be a dialogue between involved parties. Ultimately, crises often serve as defining moments for public leaders, and their recognition of and response to the event can influence immediate and long-term disaster outcomes for their populations (Kapucu & Van Wart, 200820).

According to Comfort (200721), cognition, communication, coordination, and control are critical components of emergency management. Cognition is a leader’s ability to readily identify emerging risks to the population and initiate a response based on available information. Cognition is the crux of effective emergency management, as this early awareness initiates subsequent measures. Rohrman (200822) stated that risk communication is the link between risk perception and risk management because it can influence how the public views the risk, assesses its severity, and then responds to it. Communication’s role during the immediate aftermath of disasters cannot be overstated, and it is important that leaders are communicating to a wide range of stakeholders as well as to the general public at every stage. In fact, McLean and Ewart (201523) identified three types of communication during disasters: strategic, tactical, and supportive. They argued that political leaders should only relay information that is supportive and strategic, while allowing area experts to provide tactical information. Coordination is related, as a coordinated approach minimizes the likelihood of disjointed (or even contradictory) policies that lead to confusion and inconsistent behavior among public leaders. Finally, control refers to the ability to address the external threat while also upholding normal societal functions (Comfort, 2007).

Demiroz and Kapucu (2012) identified several leadership competencies required to successfully navigate a crisis, including decisiveness, flexibility, motivating, scanning the environment, strategic planning, and decision-making. Similarly, Boin et al. (201324) offered a 10-point leadership assessment framework to assist in evaluating crisis leadership, which encompassed early recognition, sensemaking, making critical decisions, orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination, coupling and decoupling, meaning making, communication, rendering accountability, learning, and enhancing resilience. Like cognition, early recognition and sensemaking pertain to the leader’s ability to realize a crisis may be on the horizon so as to begin processing this information, sharing it with relevant parties, and interpreting possible scenarios.

Further, Weick et al. (200525) defined sensemaking as a process whereby unintelligible circumstances are interpreted by decision-making bodies as they unfold, to create the conditions for an active response that enables an eventual return to a state of normalcy. The process also called for retrospective reflection on the situation’s previous state to establish that something different is indeed occurring. Once it is determined that a new event is unfolding, it is essential that the developing situation is interpreted in a way that is understandable, plausible, and usable by those who are expected to act on that information (Weick et al., 2005). The authors further posited that in a sensemaking model, the locus is systemwide and is realized in stronger or weaker coordination and information distribution among interdependent agents. Clear and timely communication is thus considered a central component of sensemaking, in that discussion and action among various stakeholders take place in a cyclical manner that incorporates real-time adjustments, based on the evolution of the event, rather than in a linear sequence.

Vertical and horizontal coordination pertains to a leader’s effectiveness in facilitating cooperation across government agencies and societal entities, while coupling and decoupling refers to isolating any problems so that they cannot undermine entire systems. Meaning making involves leaders clearly articulating their interpretation of the crisis as well as their plans to lead their constituents out of it (Boin et al., 2013). Accountability for decisions and shortcomings are also necessary, in addition to leaders’ readiness to learn from and evaluate feedback they have received. Lastly, enhancing community resilience through preparation for future crisis events was also found by Boin et al. (2013) to be an important aspect of crisis leadership.

Though COVID-19 was an unprecedented crisis, and leaders could not rely as readily on previous experiences, Ahern and Loh (202126) highlighted the need for leaders to cultivate and sustain the public’s trust during the pandemic. This approach helps to develop the public’s confidence and encourage cooperation with public health measures. Comfort et al. (202027) used the cognition, communication, coordination, and control framework to assess the initial responses of South Korea, Italy, and the United States to the pandemic, finding South Korea to have the greatest levels of cognition, coordination, and communication among the countries analyzed.

This paper used Boin et al.’s (2013) framework to assess the performance of Prime Minister Mottley and Acting Prime Minister Bradshaw during the initial outbreak of the pandemic. Next, the methodological approach to this assessment of crisis leadership in Barbados during the COVID-19 outbreak is detailed, followed by the study’s findings.

Research Design

Research Question

Our research question was: Does the Barbadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, under the historic leadership of its first female prime minister and her acting prime minister, reflect commonly observed attributes of crisis leadership in disasters?

Study Site Description

The first two positive cases of COVID-19 in Barbados were announced on March 17, 2020. The Barbadian government immediately launched a contact tracing system to identify and test all individuals potentially exposed to the virus (Prime Minister's Office, 202028). By March 26, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anton Best reported in a press briefing (alongside the Prime Minister) that there were 24 positive cases in Barbados, based on 207 tests conducted by that time. On March 28, the government issued an Emergency Management Order, limiting the types of businesses that could remain open and imposing a nationwide curfew as total positive cases rose to 26 (Barbados Government Information Service, 202029).

On April 3, the government of Barbados implemented a 24-hour curfew to further restrict non-essential travel across the country (“Tougher Curfew,” 202030). On April 11, Prime Minister Mottley announced a shopping schedule that used people’s surnames to assign them days they could travel to supermarkets, fish markets, hardware stores, and banks, a system that remained in place through June 1, 2020 (King, 202031; “COVID-19: Barbados enters Phase 2,” 202032). By April 30, Barbados reported 35 people in isolation, 39 recovered, and 7 deaths from COVID-19. A phased reopening began on May 4, allowing the reopening of businesses, parks, and beaches while adjusting the curfew over time until it was fully lifted on July 1, 2020 (“More COVID-19 Restrictions Lifted,” 202033).

Data, Methods, and Procedures

Ten codes were generated a priori, based on Boin et al.’s (2013) leadership assessment framework, for this qualitative analysis. We analyzed nine speeches and press briefings given by the Prime Minister and Acting Prime Minister between March 13 and May 18, 2020. Of the nine speeches, four were delivered by Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw (between March 28 and April 9, 2020) while Prime Minister Mottley underwent a surgical procedure. We obtained the speeches from YouTube and transcribed them. The data was coded using the MAXQDA qualitative analysis software package, and additional codes that emerged from the data were also observed throughout the analysis. After the initial round of coding and cross referencing between the authors, the three most frequent codes were extracted for further analysis. Table 1 below shows the theory-generated codes that informed the analysis.

Table 1. Assessment Framework for Crisis Leadership

1. Early Recognition recog
2. Sensemaking sensmkng
3. Making critical decisions crit_dec
4. Orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination vert_horiz_coord
5. Coupling and decoupling coup_decoup
6. Meaning making mean_mkng
7. Communication comm
8. Rendering accountability account
9. Learning learn
10. Enhancing resilience resil
Note. Adapted from “Leadership in Times of Crisis: A Framework for Assessment", by A. Boin, W. Overdijk, and S. Kuipers, 2013, International Review of Public Administration 18 (1), pp. 79-91.


Table 2 shows our analysis of the frequency with which leadership characteristics outlined by Boin et al. (2013) were observed in the Prime Ministers speeches and press briefings from March to May 2020. Ultimately, the three most prevalent characteristics were identified as sensemaking (123), meaning making (69), and orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination (56).

Table 2. COVID-19 Crisis Leadership Characteristics in Barbados Between March and May 2020

1. Early Recognition recog 21
2. Sensemaking sensmkng 123
3. Making critical decisions crit_dec 36
4. Orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination vert_horiz_coord 56
5. Coupling and decoupling coup_decoup 28
6. Meaning making mean_mkng 69
7. Communication comm 44
8. Rendering accountability account 24
9. Learning learn 15
10. Enhancing resilience resil 31

Sensemaking and Meaning Making

Of the 10 leadership qualities from Boin et al.’s (2013) crisis leadership framework, sensemaking was the quality most frequently displayed at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in Barbados. For example, two days before implementing a 24-hour curfew, Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw declared on April 1, 2020:

My friends, this disease is not stopping. As I speak to you tonight, the great State of Florida in the United States is going on lock down. Small nations such as Barbados have now to fend for themselves. There is no sister nation to turn to, because all around us, is on lock down… or headed swiftly to that point. We therefore need to formulate a plan of survival for Barbados!

In comparing the pandemic response in Florida to what would be required in Barbados, the Acting Prime Minister conveyed to the public the seriousness of the situation while also affirming “that these measures are necessary.” On April 11, her first address since returning from her leave, Prime Minister Mottley stated, “Barbados can beat this; we, all of us, can beat this” (Prime Minister Mottley, 2020). Weick et al. (2005) suggest that the language used in a sensemaking model captures the realities of agency, flow, equivocality, transience, accomplishment, unfolding, and emergence, realities that are often obscured by more quantitative jargon. The clear and direct manner in which the risks of the pandemic were being communicated to the public allowed the population to grasp the unprecedented nature of situation early on.

The related characteristic of meaning making was the second-most frequently occurring leadership quality displayed by Prime Minister Mottley in particular. Meaning making refers to how well a leader interprets the crisis situation while also articulating their plan to guide the population out of danger. In communicating the importance of cooperation and working together as a nation, the Prime Minister regularly appealed to the morality of Barbadians as she conveyed the lethality of the virus while acknowledging what was at stake for people’s livelihoods and for the country’s long-term wellbeing. Her ability to rationally convey the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to the country, coupled with her expressions of empathy, helped reinforce the integral role of collective adaptability in helping Barbados navigate through and emerge from this crisis. For example, on April 29, Prime Minister Mottley affirmed:

Above all, we must treat each other with high levels of empathy and kindness. This, I swear, is a winnable fight, but its winnability is based on our commitment to change our behavior in a way we have never done before. It’s hard for me, and I know it’s hard for you, but just as I can do it, I know you can do it; and when we do it together, we can say that we have succeeded as one.

The Prime Minister and Acting Prime Minister consistently used this messaging throughout the first two months. As early as March 16, for example, the Prime Minister shared some personal sacrifices that she was making in response to the unfolding crisis. She said she had not been visiting her parents as her way of protecting them and detailed how she had to drop off packages on their doorstep and leave before they retrieved them. This level of transparency and sense of being “in this together” worked to further deepen her connection to the population and made what she was asking of them more tolerable, given that she herself was doing what she asked of all Barbadians.

Moreover, Prime Minister Mottley sought to couple community wellbeing with an aspiration for economic resilience. At the onset of the pandemic, economic activity in Barbados experienced severe contractions as borders were closed and travel was restricted. The then-emerging situation presented a danger not only to domestic productivity, but also to the sourcing of resources critical to the nation’s quality of life. While the government was able to sustain the distribution of its medical and essential reserves, the Prime Minister interpreted this situation as an opportunity for improvement. For example, on April 29, she shared the government's post-pandemic vision with the people:

Our goal is not to return the economy or protect everyone — it is not one or the other, it is to do both. We will seek to protect everyone, but we will also seek to transform and rebuild our economy, to be fitter and stronger to face all that we have to face going forward as a nation… At this time, reimagine our development and where we must go, let us refurbish, let us use the time to rebuild where we can, or retool, even to retrain by going and seeing what we can do that we didn’t know before.

Prime Minister Mottley repeatedly referred to the small size of Barbados relative, to other countries, in her speeches as justification for its dependency on global supply networks, but also for its efficacy in local governance. She discussed the country's swiftness in mobilizing health units to engage with vulnerable populations while larger countries struggled to do so, and even compared the national unemployment benefit scheme of Barbados to the lack thereof in the United States. Furthermore, the Prime Minister also utilized her position to appeal to a global audience on behalf of other SIDS. In her address to the United Nations on April 29, Mottley showed how small middle-income countries have been historically disenfranchised through irrelevant criteria for allocating disaster relief aid, and she called for greater equity in the distribution of provisions. In so doing, she connects seemingly disparate issues—the global pandemic response and inequitable global systems and frameworks—to draw out even greater meaning and hopefully inspire geopolitical action. Her demonstrated strength in meaning making, therefore, enabled her to transcend the boundaries of Barbados to advocate for the needs of her country and countries like it to a broader global community.

Orchestrating Vertical and Horizontal Coordination

The Barbadian government adopted a “whole of government approach” in its early strategies for responding to COVID-19, which included elements of vertical and horizontal coordination—the third most prevalent leadership trait in this analysis. Prime Minister Mottley emphasized the necessity for a “broad-based council reflective of the social partnership… because this island is simply too small and we need all hands on deck” (April 11, 2020). The government also made efforts to acknowledge the needs of Barbadians and dialogue with citizens coordinating the public sector. On April 1, Acting Prime Minister Bradshaw stated, “Throughout our COVID-19 response we have adopted an inclusive and consultative approach by engagement with the social partnership and dialogue with the public of Barbados.” This point is reinforced by the fact that these engagements were initiated across the spectrum of governance to accommodate the needs of vulnerable groups. For example, the Ministry of Education consulted with public educators to determine long-term plans, and the Welfare Department sought out and distributed resources to the island’s elderly population. Having a grasp of stakeholder needs is an essential element in coordinating the response to an ongoing disaster.

Another example relates to the previously mentioned system that was developed to assign supermarket shopping days according to surname. On April 9, Acting Prime Minister Bradshaw said:

I must say that many of the people across the country have been adhering to the physical distancing guidelines but we do have some challenges and in discussion with the retailers at a number of the supermarkets across the country, what we’ve been noticing is that they’ve been actually having some difficulties in being able to meet a number of the orders—whether online, whether via telephone or whether via WhatsApp message...and those discussions are ongoing and we will continue to update the country as it relates to that.

The ability of government to acknowledge the difficulty created by one of its protocols while adapting to work with retailers to find a solution demonstrates the utility of vertical coordination. Moreover, the transparent and ongoing commitment to keeping the population at large abreast of these developments reinforces the faith and trust that the government was able to cultivate and maintain through the ongoing horizontal coordination across government entities along with the vertical coordination between the government union employees, community organizations, the private sector, and more. As these examples suggest, the Prime Minister’s Office emphasized both horizontal and vertical coordination in the first few months of the pandemic.

The next and final section reflects on the study’s implications for how other leaders of small island states of the Caribbean might employ attributes of crisis leadership in addressing the ever-growing threat of climate change in the region.


This study focused specifically on the extent to which Prime Minister Mottley and Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw demonstrated characteristics of crisis leadership at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. The three characteristics of sensemaking, meaning making, and orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination, as outlined by Boin et al. (2013) emerged as the most salient leadership traits observed by the prime ministers between March and May 2020. Even as the pandemic continues to be a rapidly unfolding disaster, the response of the prime ministers reflects the leadership required in dealing with a slower onset disaster such as climate change. This analysis therefore has implications that extend beyond this pandemic and beyond Barbados.

It goes without say that the COVID-19 global pandemic has greatly impacted the overall social and economic wellbeing of Caribbean nations as in the rest of the world. For example, though Caribbean countries are heavily dependent on the tourism industry, tourism has now become a threat to livelihoods (and lives) despite various measures in place throughout the region to curtail the transmission of the virus. Similarly, tourism constitutes a threat to livelihoods because it largely relies on the extraction and exploitation of natural resources that are directly being impacted by climate change. In crises, governments have generally understood the immediacy required to curtail the loss of life and to keep their populations safe even as many officials within government and members of the public strongly desire a return to normalcy. On the other hand, the impacts of climate change are not necessarily felt as immediately as are those of a pandemic, nor are the consequences of climate change as readily observable for all unless one is being directly impacted. National leaders who can make sense of these climate-related realities and interpret to the public what is at stake, whether for their own nations or others, are desperately needed. Their ability to establish trust, convey empathy, and demonstrate confidence in leading their countries’ response to this ongoing challenge is as important as (and intertwined with) their ability to emerge sustainably from the pandemic.

Also of note is that the COVID-19 pandemic created a global crisis whose impacts are widespread and dependent on coordination across national boundaries (Comfort et al., 2020). Information and resources are being shared between scientists, politicians, emergency managers, and others worldwide. In a May 18, 2020, speech, Prime Minister Mottley stated:

This is a crisis therefore that strikes not only at the heart of our humanity, but also the organization of our human societies. It is a crisis that calls for global leadership that will allow us to rebuild our humanity, our environment, and the equity so badly needed in our societies and our economies.

Notwithstanding the 2015 Paris Agreement, the pandemic offers another opportunity to cultivate the global leadership needed to more concertedly respond to crises that affect us all, such as climate change.

Ultimately, leaders must take into account the extent to which a post-pandemic world allows for a re-imagining of geopolitical dynamics so as to better incorporate the experiences and perspectives of the Global South. There is thus a moral responsibility on the part of Global North countries to work more collaboratively with Global South countries as every country works to safeguard its own future. The willingness and courage to grasp, develop, and execute a globally cooperative approach, even beyond this COVID-19 pandemic, could potentially enhance crisis leadership on other issues as future threats indubitably emerge.

Acknowledgements. The authors would like to thank Katrina Gustafson and Sally Burns for their research contributions and assistance with this paper.


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Suggested Citation:

Deane, V. L. & Ramel, J. (2022). Crisis Leadership in Barbados During the Initial Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 345). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Deane, V. L. & Ramel, J. (2022). Crisis Leadership in Barbados During the Initial Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 345). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.