Societal crises such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic challenge public organizations in many ways. Yet, there is little knowledge of how varying crisis intensity can spark different reactions among public leaders and employees. This study examines the dynamics of the COVID-19 crisis in relation to leadership behaviors and employee outcomes for 920 individuals in 45 organizational units within the police, hospitals, and assisted living facilities. By conducting a panel study that combines nationwide data on crisis intensity with survey data from 2019 to 2021, the study shows that employee outcomes such as public service motivation and job satisfaction are higher in severe stages of the crisis. Likewise, crisis intensity is positively associated with employee perceived use of visionary transformational leadership, but negatively associated with employee perceived use of verbal transactional leadership. Hence, public leaders should be prepared to handle complex employee reactions when the next crisis occurs.