Leading Through Crisis

Leading Through Crisis

Leading through crisis has become a crucial skill to have for emerging leaders. By the time I was thirteen years old, I had survived an earthquake in Nicaragua that killed 10,000 people, lived through the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua for two years, and right after we fled the country and arrived in the Dominican Republic, hurricane David devastated the island. We lived with no water or electricity for the next four months. I am a survivor… and so are you!

True leaders rise up during crisis. We are living in times when people need to be led and are looking for direction. When a disaster occurs, people react in different ways, mostly due to the different personalities and based on previous life experiences. Imagine you are at a six-way intersection and all the stoplights are flashing red. This simple situation, without being caused by a disaster of any kind, other maybe than malfunction, creates confusion, disorientation, and chaos. Some people will try to rush through the intersection so fast that they may cause an accident. Others will go through the intersection so slowly trying to be super cautious that they can too create an accident. Yet others are completely frozen with no idea of what to do. They’re analyzing all the possible scenarios of them crossing the road, going too slowly, or going too fast, so they do nothing. These people then create a huge backup in traffic that aggravates the situation.

A similar scenario with people leading through crisis can happen in the workplace when a disaster (of any kind) happens but multiplied by many times than the simple imagery I just shared above. It is for that reason that we need leaders who can rise up in the midst of the confusion and chaos to lead others who don’t know what to do. Below I share some characteristics of strong leaders who rise to the occasion and lead through crisis successfully:

Be calm. In the midst of a storm, strong leaders react in a calm way. They don’t overreact or rush through decisions. They plan ahead of situations and rehearse their plans so when events occur, they already know what to do. Even if it’s a brand-new disaster they didn’t plan for, they have a self-confidence in leading that calms others around them. You need to be that calm leader so your employees don’t panic. If the leader panics, it’s all over!

Be decisive. There is nothing worse for people to have a leader who cannot make decisions during a crisis. You need to be able to make decisions on the spot with the little information you have at the moment, knowing that you may be making the wrong decision. Your employees will respect you more if you make a wrong decision than if you don’t decide at all. They will understand that you only had a certain level of information at the time and will give you grace. On the other hand, if you wait until you have all the information possible to decide, you may lose the window of opportunity and, in extreme cases, people’s lives can be at stake. At the least, people’s jobs may be in danger or the business may end up closing because you didn’t make a decision or took too long to make one. Ensure you have a counsel of people who can help you make the decisions and gather all the data you can. But please decide!

Be strategic. During a crisis, opportunities will present themselves and you need to be strategic as to which direction to go. If your business has a board of directors, make sure you consult with the board before making strategic decisions that will have long-term consequences for the business. If you don’t have a board, then consult with your senior leadership and make the strategic decisions in agreement. If you are part of the senior leadership then make strategic decisions for your division and share them with the rest of the leadership team so everyone knows how your decision will impact the others. Large corporations have several layers of leadership. You need to be strategic for your areas of oversight understanding the big picture and how everything in a company is interrelated. Communication is a key factor in making strategic decisions successfully during a crisis.

Be compassionate. Remember the person that freezes in my example above? You need to be compassionate with the employees who simply freeze and don’t know how to react in a crisis situation. You need to be patient and “tell them what to do” even if it’s one step at a time. Hopefully, you didn’t choose leaders who freeze in crisis situations. They probably are in the wrong job. On the other hand, even though strong leaders must be self-confident to be successful, they also need to be compassionate so they can take care of people in time of crisis—and at any time for that matter. Compassion and empathy are essential character traits to possess as a leader when leading through a crisis.

Be aware. Surviving a disaster takes several stages of awareness. You need to be aware that a disaster is happening. You need to understand that everything you planned for is now in “active mode.” You need to recognize that there will be losses and consequences to the disaster regardless of what type of disaster you’re facing. Lastly, you need to be aware that the recovery period will be long and that it will take a toll on you, the leader. In addition to this kind of awareness, you need to recognize that there will always be ill-intentioned people who will take advantage of every single type of disaster. Knowing this reality, you can make decisions, acting wisely, and in a calm way. Leaders must live with awareness but not in fear.

Be a planner. In order to be calm, decisive, strategic, compassionate, and aware, you must first be a planner. When you anticipate the potential scenarios and have your teams prepare for them and test your plans, you are more likely to succeed at leading through a crisis—regardless of what kind it is. The time to plan is not when the disaster happens. That is long gone. Planning should be a normal activity throughout your organization. Planning activities include budgeting, Strategic Planning, having an up-to-date Disaster Recovery Plan, Business Continuity Plan, and a Pandemic Plan which we are all testing in real life as I write this article.

Be Resilient. If you as the leader are not open to change and don’t quickly adapt to the new circumstances, how do you expect your followers to react? You must set the pace, keep an open mind, and stay positive as changes occur all around you. You must understand that there are things you cannot control (such as natural disasters and the pandemic). However, there are many things you can do after the disaster happens. You need to be the example of resilience to those who follow you.

Do NOT be in fear. As mentioned above, you need to live and lead with awareness. Part of being aware of the risks that surround you is to plan for the various scenarios. But you must not act in fear because irrational decisions are made otherwise. When you instill calm in your employees, the fears will dissipate, and the employees will be able to think clearly. Leaders transmit their fears as well as their calmness to those they influence. Therefore, it is imperative that you do not be in fear and stay calm.

Do LEAD! Lastly, if you have been given the opportunity to lead, please take the responsibility seriously and do lead your team. Examine yourself and ask yourself the question: In what ways can I enhance my leadership so I can lead through crisis successfully?

Remember, you are a survivor and can lead your team successfully through this crisis.