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5 leadership “must dos” in a crisis

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When faced with a crisis, most leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable. COVID-19 is a crisis very few business leaders – if any had planned for. But now that we are in the eye of the storm, what should leaders be doing? We have researched the key themes that have emerged from past crisis situations that could help us today as we navigate through a pandemic. Here are five key themes.


1. Keep calm and carry on

This is a sentence many of us know well. And it’s this action that will help many of us get through this crisis. Not losing our cool is a must. Effective leaders are able to remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective according to Gene Klann, author of the book Crisis Leadership. Gene states that “during a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.”

Often, as leaders we are focusing too much on what has changed, rather than focusing on what is unchanged. We have to be mindful of potential impacts to our business, but it is likely for most businesses that people will still want the same things they wanted before COVID-19 – it’s just how you deliver it to them now that matters. Finding a way to carry on, calming is key to getting through it. Just think of all those businesses that continued to operate during the Blitz in the second world war… Have the mindset that anything is possible [and stay level headed].


2. Behave like a leader

According to the Harvard Business Review, to move forward in a crisis, leaders need to cultivate four behaviours in themselves and their teams. The first to make decisions with speed over precision. Apparently, the best leaders quickly process available information, rapidly, determining what matters most, and make decisions with conviction. There is no time to wait in a crisis so waiting for that perfect moment could be a mistake. You are expected to act fast. Embrace action over perfection and don’t punish people for mistakes.  Missteps will happen, but our research indicates that failing to act is much worse.

The second behaviour is adapting to change and being bold. Strong leaders get ahead of changing circumstances. They seek input and information from diverse sources, are not afraid to admit what they don’t know, and bring in outside expertise when needed.

The third behaviour is reliably delivering – so taking personal ownership in a crisis, even though many challenges and factors lie outside your control, and aligning team focus, establishing new metrics to monitor performance, and creating a culture of accountability.

Lastly, leaders engage for impact. In times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your team. Effective leaders are understanding of their team’s circumstances and distractions, but they find ways to engage and motivate, clearly and thoroughly communicating important new goals and information. Master these four behaviours and you will be a great leader in a crisis.


3. Rely only on credible information and will make decisions using trustworthy sources

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to determine the most reliable, up-to-date information from trustworthy news sources. Avoid getting information only from social media and be wary of any news organisations that have a political, financial, or an activist agenda. Their information may be biased and, to varying degrees, inaccurate., the NHS and [public health bodies], business support organisations, local authorities and bodies like the Health and Safety Executive are the organisations good business leaders will follow.


4. Be transparent and be a clear communicator

In fast moving situations, there is often an expectation to act fast, as we have mentioned. So sometimes you have to begin tackling a problem before you have a solid grasp of what’s happening. If you are in charge, take charge. Be proactive; take initiative. Do something even if it might be wrong; paralysis or over analysing is riskier. As you make decisions and take action, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly. Your staff, stakeholders, shareholders and customers will value honesty over everything else in a crisis, but they will also be expecting you to lead them out of the crisis and that means having a clear plan of action.


5. Learning

Good leaders learn from a crisis and when it is over, they reflect and pull together their team to de-brief and ensure that it doesn’t happen again – or if it does, they are in a good position to deal with it. This might include dedicating resources for future crisis or updating plans and procedures to minimise impact. Importantly, they are open about mistakes and failures and discuss and debate what went wrong so lessons can be learned. They also share the successes to bring people up and celebrate the wins.

A crisis can reveal a lot about a person and a team. Once the situation is under control and life starts to return to ‘normal’ how you as a leader dealt with the situation will be under the spotlight by everyone including yourself. Equally, as a leader you will also need to reflect on whether you have the right team to support you through a crisis – should you ever end up in the same place again in the future.