How to Lead in a Time of Crisis

March 22, 2020
Lily Lieberman

As the global impacts of the novel coronavirus unfold in the next few weeks, it’s evident that strong, direct and empathetic leadership must be the guiding force as companies weather the storm of a pandemic. 

COVID-19 emerged and spread quickly, giving leaders little time for strategic thinking. The rapidly evolving nature of this unparalleled situation has led to global unrest and financial upheaval. 

The repercussions of this crisis will likely be felt for months and maybe even years. But while the course of the coronavirus pandemic is unpredictable, your leadership in precarious times doesn’t have to be. 

In the coming weeks, leaders of small, medium and large enterprises will be tasked with the daunting but crucial duty to inform, connect, guide and unite employees and key stakeholders. 

Here are five factors to consider as you lead your own business community through economic uncertainty:

1. Send the Right Message

Keeping a cool head — even when others aren’t watching — is vital to maintaining a culture of stability in trying times. 

Ori Brafman, a multiple New York Times bestselling author on leadership and workplace culture, said visibly rattled leaders can hinder a company culture that relies on strong, clear direction. 

“In times of crisis, or as situations become more critical, it’s up to the leader to create the context of the situation that we’re in. The calmer that leaders remain, the more effective they are at inclusivity — a crucial part of creating a calm, collaborative environment.” Brafman said. 

A leader’s attitude is a reflection of the company’s health and well-being. Fostering trust in a time of ambiguity is imperative. Clearly stated, direct and consistent messaging with concrete plans and explanations will help build confidence, even when you as a leader are unsure yourself. 

Sharing ways the company has weathered storms in the past can highlight resilience in hard times. Keep in mind there’s no playbook for this, so remain nimble and flexible. The environment is not rigid and neither are you. Be ready to change direction. 

2. Be Transparent

Often in times of crisis, businesses shy away from honest information sharing because they don’t want to create unnecessary alarm. One way to mitigate that is by taking transparency seriously at the cultural level, even when there isn’t a crisis. 

“Be as transparent as possible, all of the time. Sometimes we confuse transparency with the opposite of being calm and collected. We often worry about coming off as stressed when we deliver news and we just clamp up,” Brafman  said. “But we have to effectively ask for help in a calm way in order to open up the immense capacity that exists for people to generate ideas and innovate.” 

Transparency is a defining principle at C2FO. Kerri Thurston, chief financial officer, said it’s crucial that companies consider adding even more transparency to their operations as more team members work remotely. 

“Sharing honest and thorough information within your company is critical to achieve success during this period of uncertainty. Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable raising questions and concerns. The reward is a more thoughtful, engaged and innovative atmosphere,” Thurston said. 

Striking a delicate balance of radical transparency while keeping team members and stakeholders informed and calm can be a challenge. 

Keep in mind that research suggests that management transparency and vulnerability boosts employee creativity by instilling a sense of psychological safety.

3. Listen, Then Lead

Leaders are not immune to feelings of uncertainty, isolation and vulnerability. Get perspective by asking questions.

Listening to the thoughts, fears and hopes of team members and stakeholders can guide your leadership strategy in directions you might not have anticipated.  

“How do you, as a leader, give people a true voice? How can you pause as much as possible, listen as much as possible and then amplify the positives you find within the system and multiply them?” Brafman said. 

As more team members begin to work remotely, Brafman said it’s critical to get feedback on the implications of geographic displacement on the company. 

“How will team members continue to function as a community and effectively work together in this capacity?” Brafman said. 

Don’t forget about your stakeholders. Make sure customers understand the company is a resource for them. Encourage them to ask questions and provide quick, tailored feedback. 

4. Don’t Shy Away From the Future

When the future is hazy, it may seem counterintuitive to discuss emerging opportunities for your company, the industry as a whole and the global economy.  

“However, in times of uncertainty and crisis, sharing your vision of the future can help everyone feel like a vital part of the team and increase collaboration on ideas for strengthening the company.” Thurston said. 

Thurston suggests sharing how the current situation will impact the company in the short and long term. Creating guideposts for team members and stakeholders in a rapidly changing environment gives the company actionable steps to move forward. 

Brafman is a big proponent of genuine discussions on best- and worst-case scenarios. 

“There’s this saying: The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed,” he said.  “It’s crucial to calmly and effectively say, ‘this is where we’re heading.’ As leaders we have this approach of, ‘Well, if we don’t talk about it, then people won’t stress about it.’ But we need to talk about the future and have an honest conversation.”

5. Embrace Empathy

Empathy is a valued currency in leadership — especially in times of crisis. 

“Being able to listen and respond with empathy lets team members and stakeholders feel seen and heard,” Thurston said. 

Acknowledge the unique dynamics of current events, like a pandemic, and ask team members what you can do to help them cope with the current situation and what’s to come. 

“Make a concerted effort to understand different perspectives. Appreciation and value go a long way in showing your company’s commitment to better, more efficient ideas and processes,” Thurston said. 

Leaders may fear deepening their empathy will compromise the very skills that make them successful from a business perspective — passion, decision-making and voicing strong opinions. 

But there’s a strong business case for going beyond a positive work environment. Self-awareness can eliminate cognitive biases and potential blind spots, allowing leaders to see the bigger picture. 

The Bottom Line

Leading during a crisis isn’t easy. For those leaders who embrace adversity, however, it can be an opportunity to improve company culture and add empathy and transparency to areas where it wasn’t before. 

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