4 Things About Leadership In Crisis You Need To Know

In times of crisis, it is human nature to crave stability and normalcy. We only need to look to the election of Barack Obama during the height of the Great Recession and war in the Middle East, the reinstallation of Steve Jobs as Apple was floundering, and the ascension of Mary Barra at GM followed by her deft handling of a massive recall and PR crisis two-months later. Great leaders offer security and inspiration to those who follow them when the world seems to be falling apart. 

No matter the size of the problem, people want to believe the people they’ve entrusted with leadership will guide them to safety and direct them away from further peril. It is one of the reasons that change is so hard. People are comfortable in comfort—even when that “comfort” is not best for them. As a leader, it is your job to create "normal" as quickly as possible, especially during periods of change.

 Photo Credit: Matthew Henry

Photo Credit: Matthew Henry

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
— Rahm Emanuel

How do you do this? This happens to be a question I am asked often by new leaders in my leadership coaching program. Many fear that they do not have the tools to handle crises nor the skills necessary for crisis management. However, there are a few things that all leaders can do during rough times. Here are a few I share with my coaching clients:

Be decisive. Go through the decision process behind closed doors, announce the decision in the open. 

What I mean is you need to take the time necessary to develop clarity around your decisions before you broadcast them to others. If you require others to help you make an informed decision, include them, but only to the level that they need to know. 

Bounce ideas off of a mentor, a trusted group of peers, your partner, or your superiors when appropriate. Of course, I endorse this as a perfect opportunity to work with a business or executive coach. The coach will not only help you solve the situation, but develop you to avert and overcome future crises. 

Nevertheless, those that follow you depend on your doing what’s necessary to right the ship. They also expect you have the knowledge and ability to lead them where they must go. Therefore, you need to stay calm and cool, level-headed, and emotionally balanced. Being decisive will help you do that.

Be open. There must be some level of transparency with your team about potential problems. 

Hiding issues used to be what businesses did, but smart leaders now go in the opposite direction. Why? The world has become quite communicative. What's done in the dark does come out in the light eventually. Why not control the message BEFORE it comes out, instead of reacting to it? Great leaders follow this path. They create a vision, but they don't sell false hope.

Be honest. Lying about issues will only erode trust at a time when you need your team’s trust the most.

Being open is about how the external world interacts with you. But, being honest is about your internal framework and character. One can be open and still lie. While you do not need to share all of the intricate details of your decision process or the challenges you, your business, or the company you work for is facing, you must be honest about the gravity of the details you share.

We see this need for balance most often during layoffs. The business does have a vested interest in managing people’s fears and continuing work. However, as a leader you have a responsibility to your people, and they rely on you for their livelihood. If you’ve engendered the trust of your team, many will stay on board as you guide them through troubled waters. Also, on a more personal level, you must always be concerned about your personal integrity and reputation. If you are an employee of a company, you cannot control the integrity of others or your firm. But, if you build a reputation for being a trustworthy and reliable leader that branding will follow you no matter where you are.

Be diligent. Don’t demand of others what you would not do and remain willing to do what needs to be done even when others quit.

No one wants to see their boss leaving early when they know that things are not going well. They definitely don’t appreciate it when their boss has asked them to perform what seems impossible. If you’re not willing to get dirty with the team to address the issues then you are not ready to be a leader. Being a leader is not about giving orders. That is management. Being a leader is about convincing others they should follow your orders whether you have authority to give orders or not. People will follow your lead if they see that you are willing to work beside them. They will resent you if they believe you require of them what you refuse to request of yourself. That resentment will lead to lower productivity and worst case scenario---separation.


Let's recap. Go through your decision process behind closed doors. But, keep an "open-door policy" about issues that arise. Be truthful about what you all are going through, and assiduous in your work to resolve problems. This will instill confidence and trust in you as a leader. Your followers will believe you have the ability to handle crisis and are capable of guiding them safely back to a stable and normal state.

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