Leadership and crisis have always had a close yet complex relationship.
It’s a well-known fact that political leaders’ approval ratings improve during times of crisis. Despite the unprecedented and difficult decisions world leaders are having to make right now, approval ratings have climbed almost across the board.
The legacies of many of modern history’s most famous leaders, from Winston Churchill to Emmeline Pankhurst, were shaped by their response to challenging situations.
We look to leaders for reassurance and guidance during a crisis. The challenge for leaders is two-fold: not only to make the right decisions, but to set a positive example for others.
When leaders do well, it has a massive effect on our collective response to a situation. When leaders underperform, it can lead to even greater uncertainty and panic.
But what does effective leadership in a crisis look like?
Is it better to take control of the situation or to share responsibility with others? Should you be optimistic or realistic? Should you be decisive or take the time to assess your options?
Every crisis is different and requires a tailored response, but there are behaviours and mindsets that can help in any situation. Demonstrating empathy, listening to experts and communicating effectively can all help you to exert a stabilising influence and make the right decisions.
In this guide we’ll look at the role of leadership in a crisis and how leaders can develop the skills and the mindset to handle uncertainty and help others do the same.
The Fundamentals of Good Leadership
The fundamentals of effective leadership are fairly constant - good leadership is good leadership, whether you’re in a crisis or not. To understand the role of leadership in a crisis, it’s important to understand the role of leadership in general.
In his book, What Do Leaders Really Do?, Vistage speaker and author Jeff Grout identified a set of core responsibilities that leaders need to fulfill that are just as relevant in a crisis as they are in normal life.
“The principal role of the leader is to set the compass, to chart the course, in order that people can follow.”
A leader’s most basic responsibility is to decide what the business should be doing. Even if you open the decision up and invite other opinions, you need to have the final say. But making that decision is only the start. As Jeff points out, there’s no point in setting a direction if no one’s following you.
Providing direction is about making decisions and making sure that everyone understands those decisions at every level of the organisation.
From the C-suite to the graduates, it’s important that everyone understands your organisation’s goals and how they’re contributing. When everyone in the company is following the same purpose, it creates a sense of meaning and cohesion.
Providing direction in a crisis
Communication is even more important than usual in a crisis. Make sure that everyone understands the situation, how you’re responding and why you’ve made those decisions. You should also provide a means for people to ask questions or get more information if they need it, such as speaking to their line managers.
Create a sense of unity
“If you’ve got ‘the insider feeling’, you feel like you personally make a difference.”
Bringing people together and making them feel united is one of the more mercurial aspects of leadership, but it’s vitally important. We are herd animals with strong collective instincts. Leaders that can make us feel like we’re a part of something larger enjoy greater loyalty.
A great way to do this is to give people what Jeff calls ‘the insider feeling’. Basically, to bring people together, to celebrate achievements and acknowledge everyone’s contribution.
"Great leaders make everyone feel like their part of the inside circle."
Some companies make the mistake of only treating their most senior employees like insiders. Great leaders make everyone feel like their part of the inside circle.
Creating a sense of unity in a crisis
“We’re all in this together” is a powerful message for leaders to share in a crisis. Try to demonstrate through your words and actions that you feel empathy for people at every level of your organisation and that you’re all going to work together to get through this. Commend people that go above and beyond and set a positive example for others to follow.
“Invest time in finding out about them and their life - it will tell you a lot about them.”
Building a personal rapport with others is an essential part of leadership. This will help you deepen relationships, but also understand how to get the best out of the people around you.
Most importantly, it will help those people to feel valued and respected.
Building relationships in a crisis
Crises create pressure in our professional and personal lives. Take the time to ask how your people are. Take an honest interest in their well-being and look for ways to help them if they appear to be struggling.
“If you want people to follow, you need to communicate the ‘big talk’ routinely, maybe around four times a year. But you should be communicating the ‘little talk’ every hour of every day.”
Jeff breaks communication down into two groups, ‘big talk’ and ‘little talk’. Big talk is what we typically think of as leadership communication: briefings, town halls, those moments when you share the priorities and vision of the business.
Little talk is the interpersonal dialogue that goes on all day everyday. The quality of these interactions has a big impact. If you as a leader can have a positive impact on everyone that you interact with, even if it’s only in a small way, that will have a massive effect on how people perceive you.
Communicating in a crisis
Crises are moments of high stress, but it’s important to communicate in a way that is calm, level-headed and appropriate. If staff see their leaders losing their cool, they might think that the situation is out of control.
“It’s vital to always challenge and question the way we do things. None of us is a finished product.”
When we question ourselves and analyse how and why we do things, we can identify mistakes and find more effective ways to work. Questioning, provided it is constructive, is not the same as criticism and should be encouraged. Leaders that don’t question what the people around them are doing can end up letting mistakes be made under their watch.
Jeff suggests breaking this down into four simple questions:
- What are the good things we do that we must keep doing?
- What are the bad things we do that we must stop doing?
- What things do we do only occasionally that we should do consistently?
- What things don’t we do that we should start doing?
Asking questions in a crisis
A top-down management approach will be slower to respond to a crisis than one in which staff feel empowered to make decisions. However, responsibility for those decisions will ultimately fall on you, so take the time to discuss your teams’ decisions and their implications.
Leadership in a Crisis - Angela Merkel
Before working in politics, Angela Merkel was a scientist with a PHD in quantum chemistry. She has a very clear and precise way of communicating and is comfortable with technical detail. During the coronavirus crisis, she was able to clearly explain the situation to the population and rapidly implement nationwide testing, which led to Germany having some of the lowest infection and mortality rates in Europe.
Emotional Intelligence in a Crisis
How can the five elements of emotional intelligence help us respond to crises?
Recognising and managing your own emotions will help reduce stress on yourself and your team.
Take time to assess all of your options and the available information before making hasty decisions.
Maintaining a positive energy will help set a positive example for others to follow.
Taking the time to think of others will endear them to you and help make sure that your behaviour is appropriate to how people are feeling.
Crises can put vital relationships under strain - managing relationships in a crisis requires skill and tact.
Leadership in a Crisis - Jeff Bezos
The coronavirus strengthened Amazon’s business but was hard on its staff, who had to deal with enormous demand in conditions that may expose them to infection. Jeff Bezos acted quickly, reassuring staff that the business would look out for them by raising the minimum wage, increasing overtime pay and continuing to pay all workers who test positive for coronavirus. It has also established a $25 million relief fund for contractors and a $5 million relief fund for small businesses near its headquarters.
How to Prepare for Crises
The nature of crises is that we rarely see them coming and if we do, we often don’t appreciate the impact they might have. That said, there are plenty of things that leaders can do to develop the skills and mindset they need to respond to crises.
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Kenny Blair is the managing director of Buzzworks, a Scottish hospitality business with 500 staff and £16.2 million annual revenue. He’s also a voracious reader and a passionate advocate of lifelong learning.
We caught up with Kenny to find out how leaders can keep learning and growing so they can handle whatever life throws at them.
Cultivate a growth mindset
“Unless you have a growth mindset you can be knocked down, knocked back, knocked over on your journey. It helps you to overcome the inevitable challenges that face you as you go through your career.”
No one is born with all of the skills it takes to lead. Having a growth mindset can help you accept your skills gaps and view them as areas for improvement instead of flaws.
Having the confidence to learn and grow is one aspect of having a growth mindset. But leaders should also be able to question whether what they believe is still current and up-to-date - what worked ten years ago may no longer be relevant.
A growth mindset is also more resilient, flexible and less likely to buckle under stress.
Understand people and behaviour
“I’ve learned a lot about different types of personalities, I’ve learned about empathy and emotional intelligence. That’s a real life skill.”
High-stress situations can put an enormous strain on relationships. People may behave in ways that are unexpected or unpredictable. Managing other people’s emotions and helping them perform under pressure is a valuable skill.
Learn from and teach others
“You retain very little from simply attending a training session. You retain even more if it has practical exercises you can do. The maximum amount of retention is if you take that learning and then have to teach somebody else.”
Books, courses and podcasts are great sources of learning. But it’s also good to learn from the experiences of others and to share your own experiences.
This not only helps you absorb and retain more information, it contributes to the overall knowledge of your team, so that everyone you will need to rely on in a crisis is prepared.
Find time for self-development
“You’ve got to look at how you can hack your time. Don’t think because you don’t have time, you can’t learn. You do have time, you just need to find it somewhere. And it can often be when you’re doing something else.”
Between work and family life, it can be hard for leaders to make time for reading, listening or learning. But time can be found, if you know where to look.
One way to make time is to use the time that you spend driving or running to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. Another option is to use apps like Blinkist, which reduce books down to 20-minute podcasts that can be easily consumed on the move.
Leadership in a crisis - Kevin R. Johnson (Starbucks CEO)
In 2018, the unlawful arrest of two young black men in a Starbucks in Philadelphia dragged the company into a PR crisis, with accusations of prejudice and racial profiling. Johnson acted fast, publicly apologising and taking ownership of the problem and diverting criticism away from the store manager and towards himself. He then pledged to fix the problem, closing more than 8,000 stores and providing racial bias training for 175,000 US staff.
How to Recover from a Crisis
What you do after a crisis can be just as important as what you do during it. As Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, said:
“Bad companies are destroyed by crises. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.”
Learn from the past then refocus
Even if the circumstances that led to the crisis were out of your control, your response is always within your control. Before you move on, it’s important to reflect on what happened, what you did and how effective your response was.
Crises aren’t always comfortable but they can highlight structural or systemic weaknesses that need to be addressed. They can provide a useful opportunity to reflect on the status quo and ask what you could do better. If mistakes were made, the only way to prevent them from happening again is to understand what went wrong.
Once this analysis has happened, share it as widely as seems appropriate. If you can learn from what happened, so can the people around you. Once you’ve gained all of the perspective and learning that you can from the situation, you’re ready to refocus on the future.
Understand your new context and adapt
Widespread crises such as coronavirus or the 2008 financial crash have a transformative effect. The world that emerges from them isn’t the same as the world that went into them.
When our context changes, the behaviour of our people and our customers will change. Businesses that don’t respond to these changes put themselves at risk.
"What worked in the past may not work in the future."
Take the time to understand your new reality and weigh up how you or your business might need to change. What worked in the past may not work in the future. The businesses that thrive during economic upswings are the ones that understand their new context and adapt their business model accordingly.
Invest in the future
Every economic downturn is followed by an upswing. Controlling your costs is sensible during straitened times, but too much cost control could throttle your ability to recover and capitalise on the opportunities that an economic recovery presents.
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One of the upsides of a crisis is that they force you to review your spending and trim the fat. The businesses that make it through an economic downturn tend to be leaner and more efficient than those that fail. Once you’ve achieved cost-efficiency and you’re looking to rebuild, focus on introducing processes which can quickly scale in line with demand.
Downturns are also a great time to invest in your team. Look to invest in training for your staff and make hires where appropriate (if you have the money). Talent tends to be cheaper during a recession.
How will you respond?
As Martin Luther King once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Crisis tests our character, both as leaders and individuals. But there is comfort in the fact that many of the hallmarks of effective leadership in a crisis are just good leadership.
Communicating effectively, taking ownership, listening to others and using your emotional intelligence will all help you respond to crisis effectively as leaders. And there are plenty of stories from history that we can look to for inspiration, some of which we’ve included in this guide.
If you want to learn more or meet other leaders who are facing similar leadership challenges to you, visit our website to find your nearest Vistage group.
Adobe Stock (fizkes)