Leadership in a time of crisis

“Leadership in a time of crisis” is a phrase most leaders would rather not hear in their careers. Crisis is inevitable. They are rarely as large as COVID 19, but in my time as a leader in companies from small to Fortune 500, my experience is that crisis is inevitable. Great leadership in a time of crisis is defined in three ways, leaders:

  • Set the tone
  • Address immediate issues and;
  • Think about the future.

Set the Tone

One of the significant challenges of leadership is that everyone looks to you. If you’re distressed, the team will be. If you project honesty, the team will reflect that in their daily work. What tone did you set this week?

When I think about leaders setting the tone, I think about the “Stockdale Paradox” as outlined in Good to Great.  In the book, James Collins recalls a conversation he had with Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW during the Vietnam War. Collins asked him what his coping strategy was. Stockdale responded: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Then he went on further to say: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As you speak with your teams, set the right tone. Be realistic about the situation but also have confidence that your mission has not changed, nor has your ability to achieve it.

Address immediate issues

This current crisis is moving fast. What we thought were the facts just a few days ago have changed quickly. Do you have a good handle on how this is impacting your business? Do you have all the information and, are you communicating that to the entire team? Front line staff knows what is going on. If client calls are down or production has slowed, they know. What are you saying about it? Are you acknowledging and addressing it?

Chances are your business has problems right now, and you have some difficult decisions to make. Being upfront with your team about it will pay dividends.  An old boss of mine used to say, “Problems don’t age well.” If you aren’t addressing problems quickly and decisively, it undermines your relationship. Perfect information is hard to come by right now, so take the best information you have and make the best possible decision you can. Then, move onto the next one. Not everyone will agree with you, but they will respect that you are taking action.

Think about the future

As I said earlier, as a leader, you will have to manage through a crisis. You must acknowledge the challenges but not lose sight of the future. But are you spending any time right now thinking about the future? This crisis will come to an end. Spending time now visualizing what that future will look like will help you prepare. And if you’re preparing your business will grow faster and you will rebound more quickly.

Ensure you are spending at least part of each day planning for the future. Your business plan as it stands today, has probably changed dramatically. Be thinking about your business plan for the future so you can seize opportunities when they present themselves. You won’t want to be planning for opportunity when it happens.

Leadership in a time of crisis is the biggest challenge CEOs and Business Owners will experience in their career. Staying focused on setting the right tone, addressing the immediate issues, and focusing on the future will give you your best chance of success. A crisis isn’t the end; it’s a difficult stretch. Be prepared for what comes after, and you can look back on this as one of the great learning experiences of your career.

If you have questions or would like to set up a time to talk about your own leadership in this time of crisis, set up an appointment.

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