10 Tips for Leading During Crisis

Leading through crisis requires LEADING. Leading is not to be confused with managing. If you focus on managing, you may find yourself over-controlling things and people that you were not controlling before this crisis. Your people, partners, customers, stakeholders, vendors, suppliers, etc., need you to:

  • Be strategically in front
  • Share the truth
  • Understand how the brain reacts to fear
  • Act swiftly
  • Communicate & connect
  • Provide structure
  • Focus on trust
  • Manage bias and judgment
  • Focus on resilience
  • Re-set health

Be strategically in front. Now is not the time to fall back into your introverted ways or the time to be a super-star cheerleader delivering empty promises or messages. Leading strategically from the front means being intentional about getting in front of your audiences (virtually right now) to face reality, share facts, demonstrate empathy, and share an immediate plan. Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, International does a good job here.

Share the truth. Acknowledge and empathize with the business and human impact. Share the business facts. Be explicit and direct about what was (past), what is (present), and what you will plan for (future). Do not sugar coat the facts or hide reality. In the long run, people will appreciate your candor and honesty, and you will be respected more for being straightforward. Your messaging should be genuine, and your non-verbals + facial expressions must be consistent with your messaging.

Understand how the brain reacts to fear. In times of crisis, uncertainty and fear are high. Acknowledge the fear and uncertainty (yours and theirs). We must understand that when people are fearful about their jobs and paying bills, this is all they can focus on–a performance mindset goes to a survival mindset. If you push for performance before you acknowledge and communicate survival, you are pushing a boulder up a hill. Fear and unknowns stall action. You must share the knowns and the unknows immediately and throughout the crisis. Information and communication help calm the brain. Be careful not to over-promise, people do not need empty promises to calm the brain, they need facts.

Act Fast, Connect Faster. We are now several weeks into managing the fall-out from the current COVID-19 crisis. However, I am hearing people express frustrations about their direct leaders/bosses not demonstrating immediate action or reaching out and connecting with their people. Delays in action or planning reflect POORLY on Leaders. Leaders who delay action, hide-out, don’t communicate or connect are perceived as indifferent, incompetent, and weak. Moving swiftly to action helps put people’s anxieties and fears at ease. People want to be connected to their leaders and they want action. Mistakes will be made along the way, but to delay, hide, or stall will have a negative backlash, short and long term.

Provide structure. Business as usual does not exist for any business right now. So, new structures, operational procedures and expectations need to be established. Leading during this time is calling on leaders to implement new meeting formats (virtual/phone meetings and video chats) to get work done. The brain responds to structure and consistency, so implementing a team meeting 2 x’s a week is a good way to make sure the team is connected. Video chats (via Zoom, MS Teams; Go-to Meeting; Google Hangouts, etc.) are more essential now than ever—seeing each other is important for maintaining trust, connection, productivity, creativity and community.

Focus on Trust. Leaders trust your people to lead and do their jobs. Resist jumping in and over-managing. When we are fearful and working with many unknowns, we will often over-correct and go back to previous skills that helped us move up the leadership ladder; controlling and taking over is often the skills we can revert back too.

Additionally, don’t spend time worrying about if your people are actually working or being productive at home. Everyone is adjusting to managing a new reality from working from home with partners, kids, pets, gardeners, etc. in the background. Put your energy into what matters; trust them to do their jobs and focus on your priorities and taking care of your people and customers. Be explicit about trusting them and focus on outcomes and results, not time spent connected to devices. Explicitly give permission to take breaks, walks, lunch, powernaps, and playdates.

Manage bias and judgements. This crisis has definitely highlighted inequalities in our world, social, political, and healthcare systems. As leaders, we must be attentive to our own conscious and unconscious biases. During this time, I’ve heard some very well intended leaders express an unusual amount of explicit bias, judgement and sweeping statements related to people’s personal habits, hygiene and health (which would typically be cause for leadership + HR intervention). I’ve heard judgments related to handwashing, nail biting, physical contact, traveling for work or fun, explicit racial bias, and many more. We are all in a heighted state of managing this crisis and virus, but we must be careful how this is or will impact our current and future relationships and leadership roles. Leaders are always required to act with a higher level of awareness, integrity and emotional intelligence, please do your part and be a good role model.

Demonstrate a resilient and hopeful outlook. Acknowledge your resilience as a company, perhaps provide past examples. Speak to your hope and optimism for a positive, hopeful future and your belief in your people. Take time to re-frame and re-interpret what this crisis means for the company and your people. People need inspiration and hope to move forward, and leaders you set the tone. This messaging comes after you have done the above. If you rush to hope too quickly you will seem disconnected from reality.

Take action on your total health (body, mind, spirit). We all desire to lead a healthier life. Now is the time to act on your health, well-being and key relationships. Being at home provides us with an opportunity to re-set our eating, movement, and sleep habits. It also gives us an opportunity to focus more on connecting with our key people. You do not have to be glued to your computer or phone to “prove” you are working. Leaders make sure to tell your people to take health, movement and relationship breaks throughout the day! Remember, happy and healthy people/leaders perform better!

Lead Well,
Dr. Shanna

Photo Credit: Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

Dr. Shanna Teel