Leading Through Crisis



When faced with a crisis, most leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar. Whether it’s a technological, financial, natural, or health crisis — at work or in the community — crises demand that leaders take an emergency response plan and adapt it as new evidence and factors present themselves.

All the while, effective leaders are able to remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective. According to Gene Klann, “During a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.”

Especially as organisational leaders face the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and associated disruptions in the global economy, Klann recommends the following 5 actions to help companies prepare and respond.

1. Seek Credible Information. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to determine the most reliable, up-to-date information from trustworthy news sources. “Avoid getting information only from social media, and be wary of any news organisations that have a political, financial, or activist agenda, their information may be biased and, to varying degrees, inaccurate.”


2. Use Appropriate Communication Channels. Once essential information is gathered, it should be disseminated to the entire organisation by every means possible. Transparency is key. “Information is the oil that greases an organisation and keeps it running smoothly, this is especially true during a crisis.” Information is powerful because it:

  • reduces emotional distress caused by the unknown,

  • diminishes fear,

  • provides tactical guidance, and

  • demonstrates to employees that their leaders are concerned, involved, knowledgeable, and on top of the situation.

Key information should be handled with the 3 Rs: review, repeat, reinforce, if information is shared only once, it cannot be assumed everyone has received it — or if they did, that they understand it. Repeating and reinforcing information on a daily basis and via multiple delivery methods helps it to sink in and be retained. Remember, when information regarding what is happening is scarce or non-existent, people revert to gossip and rumours and also tend to Make Stuff Up, invariably, what they make up will be worse than reality, no matter how bad reality is.

3. Explain what your Organisation is Doing about the Crisis. During a crisis, time is compressed. The initial onset of a crisis presents immense pressure to act — and act quickly. Sometimes you have to begin tackling a problem before you have a solid grasp of what’s happening.

If you are in charge, take charge. Be proactive; take initiative. Do something even if it might be wrong; paralysis or over analysing is riskier. As you make decisions and take action, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly.

With the coronavirus, you might choose to reduce air travel, ask more people to work from home, place hand sanitiser in strategic places within the facilities, encourage those with the sniffles or a cough to stay home, and frequently clean high-trafficked areas or objects and surfaces. As your response changes, keep employees updated with the 3 Rs.

Remember that everyone observing or living through a crisis views it through a unique lens. For example, a paramedic will understand only that a hospital is overloaded; a hospital administrator will only know that the generator isn’t working. Keep in mind that no one will have a complete, accurate picture of what’s going on.


4. Be Present, Visible, and Available. During a crisis, leaders should be accessible. Because it’s not always possible to walk around your facility and talk to colleagues in person, let employees know how they can best reach you with status updates and questions. Particularly during a crisis, employees have a need to hear from their leaders frequently. When leaders appear calm, concerned, knowledgeable, and in charge, workers feel encouraged and are more likely to have confidence that things are under control and will be fine.

Understand that organisational protocol needs to account for flexible leadership ranks during an emergency. Whoever is in charge is whoever is there. An entire operation cannot be hamstrung because bureaucracy didn’t account for a key player being unavailable when an emergency struck.

5. Dedicate Organisational Resources for Future Crises. As any crisis transitions from its urgent phase, the time pressure will ease, as will the need for split-second decisions. At that point, the plan must evolve into a more complex system that looks at recovery and getting things back to normal — whatever the new normal looks like.

If a similar emergency unfolds in the future, will you be prepared? All leaders will admit that crisis planning — for example, having a Crisis Action Plan and setting aside resources for a crisis — are important, but experience shows that key resources are seldom placed in reserve for contingencies, and if they are, they’re usually inadequate. While improvisation cannot be planned, thinking and team-building exercises can be built into a training program that prepares everyone for a similar, future crisis.

During a crisis, leaders who have built a personal, relational, and cultural foundation can then focus on the immediacy of the moment. Effective crisis leaders often do the following;

  1. FACE YOUR EMOTIONS Recognising and managing the emotions of the situation — others’ as well as your own — can help with individual and group resiliency, getting people to safety, and then back to normal (or a new normal). People with an imbalanced emotional state don’t process well. It is important to do anything you can to reduce the emotional stress on people while “doing the job.”

  2. SHOW RESPECT Treat people with sincere consideration and genuine concern. Show it by paying attention, listening, and responding to what people are telling you, as well as considering what is not being said.

  3. MAKE CONNECTIONS Draw on a sense of loyalty, courage, morality, or other principles that tie your crisis response to what is important to people.

  4. BE POSITIVE A leader’s attitude is contagious. Leaders are dealers in hope. Even in extreme crisis, an upbeat, can-do attitude keeps people going.

During a crisis, leaders are often focused on the emotional turmoil of their direct reports and others in the organisation, but it’s equally important for leaders to take care of themselves. A crisis can exert a high impact on human needs, emotions, and behaviours. We may not be conscious of this, but our behaviours send messages to others about our own underlying needs and emotions. Whatever leadership role you play, you need to be aware of your own emotional turmoil, its effect on your behaviour, and its influence on your leadership abilities. Take these actions to keep the perspective you need to bring your people and your organisation through a crisis.

  • THINK TODAY Take the crisis one day at a time.

  • FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE Avoid negative people, negative thoughts, and negative talk. Constantly think positive thoughts and tell yourself that you can do it.

  • GET GROUNDED Take 5-minute private breaks. Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing. Don’t neglect spiritual exercises and activities as they fit your individual beliefs.

  • PRIORITISE AND FOCUS Keep meetings short or “on the hoof,” where everyone stands. Be more assertive. Say “no” more often. Be more conscious about managing your time and priorities. Concentrate on only major issues. Skip secondary tasks. Finally, Klann advises leaders in times of crisis to remember the big picture.


Concentrate on the greater vision you have of yourself, both personally and professionally. Think about where you will be and what you will be doing a year from now. Stop and realise that you are alive and that much good will come out of the crisis. By paying attention to your own emotions, needs, and behaviours, you will be better prepared to handle the human dimensions of the crisis. As a result, you will be more capable of containing the crisis, regaining control, minimising damage, and effectively preventing, defusing, and reducing the duration of an extremely difficult leadership situation.

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