Leading through crisis

This is part two of a series on leading through crisis. You can read part one here.

We are in the middle of a global crisis not seen in decades. The ongoing impact is taking a physical, mental, and financial toll on society. It’s important that we acknowledge the toll, that no one is immune, and that we will make it through this crisis. 

In this article, I’m sharing seven tips for leading and managing through crisis. 

How do you lead during a crisis

When leading through crisis, the outcome of the crisis, whether an impending unprecedented disaster, or near miss, won’t be what people, or history remembers. Your ability to lead through crisis will be measured in how well you execute these tasks.

Crisis management

Early recognition — early crisis management begins with the recognition and acknowledgement that a threat has emerged and requires immediate attention. 

Sensemaking — in the midst of a crisis, arriving at a shared understanding of the nature, severity, scope, and consequences (both immediate and long-term) is both critical and incredibly difficult. Conflicting reports, inaccurate data, projections vs. reality, and the media’s hype of the situation can create a panic that’s more severe than the actual threat. Most people have a hard time sharing and processing information accurately in times of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Sensemaking is a critical step in being able to make well-informed decisions. 

Making critical decisions — this is much harder than it looks. The reality is you won’t know whether or not you’ve made the right decision until some distant time in the future. How will this be measured? Well, we consider how carefully leaders deliberate which decisions should be made, the impact of those decisions, and whether or not they used a reasonable amount of due process.

Making meaning — during a crisis, people look to leaders to see how they should be responding to the situation and how the leader will restore some sense of normality. Leaders are expected to provide hope and confidence. Like making critical decisions, this one is much harder than it looks. If you don’t acknowledge the severity of the situation, you fail to establish credibility. Once you’ve acknowledged the severity, it’s important to lead people through the crisis, provide hope, make meaning in the moment, and show them how you will lead through crisis, out of the current situation, and into the new future. 

Communication — in the words of Brené Brown “Clear is kind.” Open communication between leadership, an organization, and the people is critical during crisis. A breakdown in communication can have severe repercussions in how leadership is received and perceived during crisis management. Communication should be frequent and offer actionable advice. 

Learning — every crisis offers an opportunity to learn. In some cases, you can prepare for an impending crisis (e.g., fire, flood, earthquake). In other cases, you cannot prepare for the impending crisis, only how you will respond, adapt, and move forward (e.g., global pandemic like COVID-19). In either case, the capacity to improvise, discover, and experiment is foundational for crisis management. An effective leader will encourage feedback, tolerate and listen to criticism, and facilitate an environment of learning. 

Building resilience — it is impossible to plan and prepare in detail for every potential crisis or disaster. Organizations and leadership must posses a level of flexibility and adaptability — the ability to take a blow, absorb the impact, and recover quickly. Unfortunately, most organizations are not equipped with resilience. Organizations must create a culture of awareness, acknowledge where things may go wrong, and a shared belief that they are strong enough to survive the crisis together. 

What’s next

This global pandemic will end at some point. It’s too early to tell the magnitude, or how long it will last. One thing is clear, however. The aftermath will last for years — possibly decades or generations. 

We are all in this together and will make it through. Together.

The time for resilient leadership is now.

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