Leadership in a Time of Crisis
With the COVID-19 pandemic, our personal and professional lives have experienced a significant and traumatic upheaval. Uncertainty regarding our health, habits, routines and livelihoods have caused stress and anxiety all around us. During such times, it is important for people to be able to look to leaders for a sense of direction and certitude. At the same time, if we see and experience effective leadership, we can, in turn, be effective leaders to those whose trust happens to be placed in us.
As such, it is helpful for us to reflect on some key leadership practices in times of crisis. These practices are sound strategies for any crisis that faces your organization or unit, but are particularly appropriate given the crisis of this global pandemic.
First, in a time of crisis, it is important for good leaders to stay calm. When leaders exude a calm, steady presence, that sense of calmness is promoted and perpetuated in others. According to Dr. Britt Andreatta, a thought leader on Leadership and Learning who researches the “Brain Science of Success,” humans have “Mirror Neurons”—we pick up on emotions in others and we tend to amplify them (Madecraft 2020). So, if a leader outwardly shows panic and commotion, that panic will spread. Rather, leaders need to exude confidence. This is not to say that we should hide our emotions or be insincere; instead, it is important to understand the challenges before us and be calm, methodical and strategic about how we will handle those challenges. This is sometimes termed “deliberate calm.” This deliberate calm combined with a thoughtful confidence (confidence grounded in realism) is a powerful tool for leaders in difficult times.
Second, during a crisis, leaders must be patient. With any crisis, it is a solid leadership practice to wait for a full set of facts to emerge before taking action. This can be difficult because we don’t want the notion of patience to amount to inaction. Most crises will involve significant uncertainty, but leaders can combat this by continually gathering information as the situation unfolds and charting a course based on the most up-to-date facts available. This is referred to as a cognitive behaviour called ‘updating’. Good leaders will revise their ideas and decisions as new information emerges.
Being patient in a crisis can also mean managing our expectations for what we want to see from our people. They, too, need time to process what is happening. For example, with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, people feel uncertain at the most basic and biological levels. Again, Dr. Andreatta explains that people are both “wired to survive and wired to belong.” With the pandemic, these most basic needs are being threatened, and so it is to be expected that our people will not be at their peak performance. But, Dr. Andreatta also explains that people are wired to become their best selves. So, if we as leaders have patience, our people will develop new habits and productivity will rise once again as new routines are established. As leaders we need to accept the initial resistance to change, be prepared for people to be uncomfortable in the beginning, but trust in their resiliency. We are being forced to find new ways to work but we can ultimately embrace new methods and routines and subsequently benefit from them when the crisis is past. Great leaders in times of crises display this kind of empathy and patience.
Taking all of this into account, Leaders must communicate with intention and frequency. During a crisis, leadership will maintain a steady stream of information. Great leaders always communicate effectively and during difficult times they remain transparent, sincere and provide frequent updates. The flow of information will help orient your people and will prevent widespread panic and doubt.
Finally, Leaders need to practice self-care. Especially during difficult times, we need to attend to our own well being. Stress, fatigue and uncertainly will build up and negatively affect our ability to process information. Subsequently, this will affect our ability to make sound decisions. Also, we need to be calm and feeling good so we can better support others. During a crisis, leaders need to take time for themselves. For example, the pandemic has forced us to isolate. A good leader will take this opportunity to slow down, to invest in self-care by learning something new. They will take pleasure in play, in humour, in mindfulness. They will look for the silver linings.
These general leadership practices will serve you well in moments of crisis. The pandemic is testing all of us and the consequences of this time will have far-reaching effects. Effective leadership, however, prepares us for this and for the next challenges to come.
Madecraft, 2020. “Advice for Leaders during a Crisis.” LinkedIn Learning course. Accessed online 2020/07/23 at https://www.linkedin.com/learning/advice-for-leaders-during-a-crisis/succeeding-as-a-leader?u=2148956