Crisis and Leadership

“The words hope for the best and plan for the worst have never resonated with me so much as we have worked to navigate our international company through the ever-changing realities of COVID-19.”

Like many of you, I have been reading nonstop about COVID-19 specifically and about pandemics in general–trying to glean any wisdom I can from experts in the field and from historical events. I was struck by the comments of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who said “When you combine a pandemic with uncertainty, you get a powerful formula for fear and even panic. And that is why those in leadership positions need to step to the forefront and be a positive presence for those they lead.” We all know that when adversity strikes, people are looking for direction and guidance, and that’s why leaders must exert their influence to shape the best way forward.

During this time, I have found myself reflecting on the quote by James Lane Allen, a 19th century novelist, “Adversity does not build character—it reveals it.” The way a leader behaves and acts during a crisis will uncover their ability to lead-period. It will uncover their willingness to take prudent and yet decisive action during a time when there is no manual. It will uncover their ability to calm the waters when others around them are panicking. It will demonstrate their ability to learn and rapidly course correct as circumstances indicate. It will show to others their innate character. Adversity shines a light on talent. Individuals in the organization who may have gone unnoticed suddenly find themselves in the spotlight with an opportunity to apply their skills to emerging problems. They rise to the occasion.

In a 2017 article in Forbes Magazine I found a set of recommendations for leadership in crisis that stuck with me and I have relied on over the past month:

Don’t Allow Your Emotions To Get The Best Of You
In times of crisis, leaders invariably find themselves in the midst of a stressful and tense atmosphere. Now is the time to take charge of your thoughts, emotions and the way you deal with problems. Anything else can be interpreted by employees as a loss of control.

Remain Positive To Remain Productive
Positivity is the fuel for productivity. When the chips are down, you can choose to either get caught up in all the negativity surrounding you, or you can choose to do something positive about it. There’s always a choice.

Manage Expectations
When crisis strikes, people want to get over it as quickly as possible. As a leader, this is the time to face the situation and learn the magnitude of the problem. Let your staff know it might be a while until the storm passes and prepare them for the long and hard battle ahead.

Exercise Your Fearlessness
Fear is contagious and so is courage. If your demeanor reeks of fear, your employees will feel a greater sense of fear. You cannot afford to project yourself as someone who is not sure of the ability to lead or is short on confidence. Demonstrate the kind of courage that makes people want to follow you.

Never Waste A Good Crisis
Churchill’s quote is imminent. In the world of business, we are often guilty of not challenging the norm; we are instead satisfied with following procedure and tradition. It takes insight and not a little courage to question your leaders as to why are things done the way that they are? However, in times of crisis there seems to be more latitude to do so – management in fact is actively seeking input it seems. Leading companies nowadays recognize this and cultivate a more open, questioning climate within the office at all times because a degree of continual review is healthy within a business.