Leading In Times of Crisis

Funny how things can change overnight. You go to bed one night, and things seem under control, then you wake up, and chaos has ensued. What appeared as a minor blip on the radar one day becomes a full-blown crisis the next. As I write this, we are in the midst of one such crisis, the Covid-19 outbreak. The impact of this pandemic has touched every business in one way or another. So how do we lead our organizations and teams through these uncharted waters?

The starting point for leading through this or any crisis is self-leadership. The most important gift we can give our team right now is to stay calm. During a crisis, no one wants to hear their leader panic. If we panic, they will panic. If our words are anxious and filled with alarm, they will be anxious and alarmed. Our organizations need our calm, thoughtful presence now more than ever.

I admit, this is not easy. A time of crisis takes a toll mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. We have so many things going through our minds. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the many decisions that we must make. But it is important that we not allow our emotions to get the best of us. Here are a few ideas to help provide thoughtful, grounded leadership in this time of crisis:

1. Take Inventory of Your Experiences

Even if you’re relatively new to a leadership position, chances are you have been through at least one crisis in the past. It might be helpful to look back and take inventory of that experience. What did you do? What resources did you draw upon? What insights did you gain? There are valuable lessons to be learned from our experiences. Whatever challenges, problems, or difficulties you faced in the past, you’ve overcome. Draw on those experiences and lessons and think about how they might help you today.

2. Don’t Neglect Self Care

During times of intense crisis, we tend to run ourselves ragged. We are so focused on the problems, that we neglect caring for ourselves. This neglect makes our decision-making less reliable, and our thinking less clear. Lack of sleep reduces our creativity. Ignoring our diet and exercise saps us of our energy. So, pay attention to your self-care. Get some sleep, eat right, and make room for physical activity. We can only bring our best energy and thinking to this crisis if we take care of ourselves.

3. Focus on What you Can Control

In this and any crisis, there is so much that lies outside of our control. We don’t know what the government will do, how the economy is going to respond, what our customers will choose to do, or how long this will last. Trying to address all of those issues can get overwhelming. We can easily get swept up in all the “what ifs” of the things outside of our control and fail to act on those things that are under our control. What are the things you and your team can control right now? What is the next best action that you can take today? Focus on those things. Then act.  

4. Remember Your Influence

As leaders, we have a unique position in our organizations. People are looking to us for leadership. They are listening to our words. Our teams are watching our actions. The words we speak carry a great deal of weight. It is critical for us to be thoughtful about what we say during a crisis. When interacting with our teams, it is helpful to measure our words. Whatever we say will be amplified in their minds, avoid hyperbole and over-the-top images. The middle of a crisis is not the time to process things out loud in front of the team. That will scare them and cause all kinds of questions and worries that will cause even more negative energy.  

The middle of a crisis is not the time to process things out loud in front of the team.

5. Be Authentic

That isn’t to say we should be fake. People will see through that, and credibility will suffer. When facing a crisis, the instinct for some of us is to sugarcoat or downplay the situation, so our team won’t worry. But acting like the situation is no big deal when everyone knows it is doesn’t calm anyone. And making promises that you may not be able to keep may bring a bit of calm now, but in the long run it will backfire. Yes, our team needs us to be positive and hopeful, but they also need for us to be real. If we don’t know, it is best to tell them we don’t know. If we aren’t sure what the path looks like, we should let them know that, and then we can share what we are doing to gain clarity. 

6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is critical for our teams, even more so in the midst of crisis. They need to hear from us often, probably more often than we think. What if there is nothing new? Tell them there is nothing new! In the absence of communication, people’s minds are left to wonder and worry. And if they don’t hear a message from us, they will create a message of their own. And rarely is that good. Silence is where fear, rumors, and overreaction breed. So communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more. And communication is not just telling them things. It is also to ask for input. Inviting them into the conversation can be very helpful. We all have blind spots, so it is very likely that they are seeing things that we are missing.

In order to survive and thrive through a crisis such as the one we are currently facing, we must bring our best selves to our organizations and teams. Now, more than ever, our teams need us to step up with calm, hopeful leadership. Fear is not our friend. It will cloud our thinking. It will make us overreact. And worst of all, it is contagious. So, step back and take a breath. You’ve been through tough situations before, and you have survived. Draw on those experiences in this current crisis. Remember why you do what you do. Take inventory of the resources you have at your disposal. Then stand and face this crisis and lead your team with confidence. 

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