Members of the C-suite and managers set themselves apart by the way they lead during a crisis. Some rise to the challenge and transform catastrophe into triumph. Others succumb to the pressure and crumble. The latter can easily cause devastating – and often permanent – damage to a business.  Often, the negative impact of poor leadership during a crisis may not be fully apparent.  Instead the symptoms may be problematic with higher employee turnover, lower stakeholder trust, decreases in employee productivity and morale and so forth.  These will ultimately have an impact on growth, corporate and workplace culture as well as overall financial health.

Obviously, no leader wants a business in their charge to fail. But even with the best intentions, figuring out how to lead while under fire can be difficult waters to navigate. Doing so can feel like an impossible feat when leadership lacks experience in crisis situations, or when the issue is one that is entirely new and unique.  Fortunately, there are common methods that leaders can use to find light even in the midst of the most challenging crises.

Establish a Solid Support System 

Many of the greatest leaders in history have surrounded themselves with a powerful support system that helps keep them grounded and provides valuable insight. These people should possess strength of character, emotional intelligence, a communicative nature and good leadership values.

Confidence is important because people in the support system should not be afraid to speak up if they feel that leadership is straying from the company’s goals, purpose and corporate culture. They should not be prone to bickering, but they should feel confident in standing up for what is right.

Bringing a group together with various strengths that work and play well with each other can often work to significant advantage.  The CliftonStrengths by Gallup test which can be taken online or the book, StrengthsFinder 2.0 are great tools to better understand strengths as well as weaknesses and align the best people to create a support team for leadership crisis situations.

Temper Toxic Tendencies 

When people are under pressure, they can react in one of two very different ways: remain calm and soldier on -or- break down in anger, panic or despair. Certain reactions reveal toxic personality traits that leaders should never display, including the following:

  • Narcissism
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-absorption
  • Insecurity

That is not to say that people with these dysfunctional tendencies cannot lead. Everyone has flaws. However, a true leader overcomes their flaws and controls unhealthy tendencies for the greater good.

The knee-jerk reaction may be to spend the majority of the time focused on the crisis at hand which is what can cause uncertain leaders to stumble.  However, strong leaders focus on finding solutions and are willing to accept that ambiguity is part of the job.  Instead of worrying about what can’t be done, great leaders focus on what they can do, let go of what can’t, and don’t get bogged down with little details that won’t have impact long-term.

In times of crisis there is far more pressure than normal.  While it may seem counter-intuitive, letting go of some of the day-to-day stressors actually can stabilize emotions and prevent toxic tendencies from creeping into management.  For example: reducing errors may be part of a strategy the organization has in place.  However, doubling down during a time of crisis on this policy will only create more pressure for everyone.  Instead, develop a new strategy based on the current situation that’s a bit more forgiving.  For example, rather than penalizing employees when errors are made, offer incentives for employees to find new methods to minimize errors, spot and fix errors, reduce them and so forth.

Pause and Think 

The fight-or-flight response drives most people to either go into battle mode or flee from danger. While this response is perfectly reasonable in a situation that puts them in physical peril, it is not appropriate for a crisis such as a pandemic, global or national disaster, civil disturbances, and so forth.

Instead of letting instinct take over, leaders should pause and think rationally. By not allowing emotions to run the show, management can come up with productive ways to solve the problems they face. And being deliberate with decisions reduces the risk of making disastrous decisions.

Timing is essential, but so is being knowledgeable about the subject matter as well as the credibility and overall mission of resources that may be referenced.  When it doubt, being brief and issuing follow-ups as more information is known is far better than assumption.  If you offer resources such as links to other websites don’t just read the content of the resource cited.  Instead, take the extra effort to fully understand the mission, values, and reputation of the organization or business to ensure that the work is deemed credible, that the organization’s overall perspective aligns with your business, and so forth.

Maintain a Grip on Reality 

A positive outlook is certainly always an asset in any situation. That said, there is a time and place for it. Misplaced optimism can result in bad decisions and upset employees.

For example, suppose leadership announces that they will not need to lay off anyone during an economic crisis. However, they later realize that their finances will force them to furlough some employees. This scenario not only creates issues with employee trust impacting morale, but it also can be damaging to the organization’s reputation when word gets out to the general public.

In this case, it is advisable to be honest with employees and tell them upfront that layoffs may be necessary. At least this way, employees can prepare financially and reach out to their network.

In the midst of a crisis it is absolutely essential that managers make the time to meet one-on-one with employees.  They need to understand and address individual concerns, as well as assure key employees of their value.  For employees that may be let go or may be “first in line” for lay-offs, leadership can provide career counseling options such as job hunting and resume writing resources, coaching or mentoring services, unemployment links, etc.

There is no denying it: Leading while under fire is a challenging proposition. However, if it is done well, leadership can avoid getting burned and instead champion their organization’s success.

Uncertain times call for creative thinking.  Contact Gavel International to be inspired with solutions that connect and engage your people. 

Jim Bozzelli