4 Keys to Leading through Crisis

We are experiencing unprecedented times given the ever-evolving issues with COVID-19.  It is scary and unnerving for everyone, especially those leading during this time of crisis.  

I’ve been watching a few leaders in action over these last few days.  Their actions have provided some insights into the courage, energy, and attitude that is required to inspire and influence others when things are uncertain, novel, and anxiety-ridden. 

Here is what I’ve learned leaders need to do during all situations of leadership, but most especially when leading through a crisis: 

1. Lead by Example:  First, leaders do what they say they will do.  If you are telling people not to panic, you can’t panic either.  If you are asking people to be at work or not be at work, then you need to do the same.  If you are telling people to wash their hands and how or are telling them to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) then you need to do the same.  Model the behavior you want to see. 

2. Lead by Putting People First:  I’ll be the first to admit I am very concerned about the economic impact this pandemic is going to have on my small business and the other small businesses around me.  Many are saying their first priority is people’s safety and rightly so, but also of concern is being able to pay people when there is no business to conduct due to quarantine or other issues.  So what do you do?  You do the next right thing, and that is putting people first. At some point, this is putting people first where their health and safety are concerned, and at other times it’s putting people first by making sure you can provide for their financial well-being and sometimes it is both all at once. 

For example, I had a dentist appointment scheduled for Wednesday.  My dentist is planning to cease operations for three weeks starting on Wednesday.  She asked that my children and I come in early to fill cancellation slots on Monday and Tuesday.  Her priority in this situation is being able to generate as much revenue as she can before having to shut down in order to be able to pay her staff (and herself).  A member of her staff met me at my car to take my temperature before coming into the building. She also asked me a series of questions about my health, where I’ve traveled, and who I’ve been around before letting me enter.  This is to ensure the safety and health of her staff and her other patients.  Upon finding out that my husband works in a healthcare setting where he may have been exposed to the virus, they told me they would need to reschedule my appointment.  I see this is a prime example of putting people first. She is managing the complex issues surrounding this imperative as a leader by considering both people’s physical and financial well-being, gathering information, and then making a case-by-case decision.  

3. Lead by Communicating:  Communicating with a variety of people, in a variety of settings with a variety of needs is a challenge on a regular day.  Add to the equation an unprecedented level of fear and anxiety, and you have a perfect storm on your hands.  To communicate effectively during this situation, leaders need to: 

  • Communicate often.  Schedule regular intervals of communication updates and implement by the minute updates when breaking or new information becomes available. Depending on your industry and situation this may be different and require different modes.  In most cases as soon as you know, others should know if it impacts their wellbeing and work. 
  • Communicate transparently.  Provide direct, factual information as you know it. In most cases, your opinion or emotions aren’t needed during a crisis. 
  • Listen.  When emotions are high, our natural tendency is to not listen as effectively as we would in a non-stressed state.  Eliminate distractions while listening and ask clarifying questions to make sure you have heard the messages given to you as intended.   It may also be wise to take a notebook and pen with you everywhere you go (if you don’t already) to write down what you’ve heard and what you need to follow-up on because, during a stressed state, we are more likely to forget or misunderstand things when we go to interpret or act on them. 

4. Lead by Thinking Creatively.   Novel times require novel actions.  I have been amazed by the creativity I have seen in leaders trying to navigate the ever-evolving crisis.  For example, my sister-in-law owns a dance studio.  She made the decision, by following the leading by example and leading by putting people first to close the studio for the safety and wellbeing of her students, staff, and families. She also is trying to put people first by maintaining a payroll.  If students can’t dance, she feels like she cannot charge tuition.  So, she is working on online video streaming content for all her students so they can continue with their practice at home.   This will allow her students to get the services they desire through a modified delivery channel, thus still charging tuition and still being able to pay her staff.  

From how to provide childcare to healthcare workers that have to report to work but are dealing with schools closings for at least three weeks; to figuring out how to rapidly test individuals without exposing others to the virus; to watching business owners adapt to find new sources of revenue to be able to continue to pay employees; we are truly a country filled with ingenuity through our people.  This is what will get us through this storm, and I am confident we will all come out better leaders and people on the other side. 

How are you leading through the crisis today? 

Mary Ila Ward

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