How to Lead in a Crisis

Leading others through uncertainty

On 9/11, I was working in Manhattan.  Today, when people discuss 9/11 and New York City, everyone knows there were two planes, and only two planes, that struck the Twin Towers.  That morning, though, no one knew how many more there would be, or what else was to come.

Not that the comparison is parallel, but we’re in similar times.  We’re not quite sure what’s to come.

And so for leaders and managers who also don’t know what’s to come, but still need to lead their organization and their people through uncertainty, here are some recommendations.
Put your game face on.  Be authentic, but not that authentic.
You likely feel some anxiety.  About work.  Your job.  Your company.  Your family.  Your health.  That’s totally appropriate.  But you’ll need to contain it.  This is not the time to say you’re anxious too, or that you’re afraid too.  Some will assume it, but you don’t need to confirm it.

People need hope.
Why shouldn’t you show your anxiety or fear?  Because your people need hope.  Immediately following 9/11, CEOs, heads of HR, and other leaders were all trying to figure out how to respond.  And that’s not a criticism.  What was normal became surreal.  The new normal was so far from normal.

But those leaders who stood out, stood out because they provided hope to their people.  And not just by their words, but by their actions.  I forever remember the CEO of a client company who stood in the company lobby a few days after 9/11, personally greeting all employees returning to work, thanking them for their courage, and reassuring them that, somehow, together they would get through this.

I realize for some leaders, getting through this, financially speaking, is not a given.  Nonetheless, demonstrate as best you can by your actions that you are working towards a better tomorrow.

But don’t promise false hope.  Build trust instead.
Ultimately hope will be built on trust.  Can your people trust what you say and do?  They certainly want to, particularly now, but they need to know and feel that you’re worthy of their trust.  So you need to communicate what is being done to address the issues at hand.  And you can certainly say you don’t have all the information right now, or that you’re hopeful things will improve, but ultimately, people’s hope will not rest solely on your hope.  It will rest on the honesty of your words and the actions you take to earn their trust.

So clearly communicate what you are doing.
Nature abhors a vacuum (and confusion), and typically, people don’t fill uncertainty with positive thoughts.  Confusion breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty yields anxiety.  So do your best to fill the void with clear, accurate information about what you’re doing to address the issues and challenges.

Communicate often, but it shouldn’t be a novel.
Most people have heard the apocryphal “truth” you need to repeat something 7 times before people hear it.  But for this time, let’s deem it true.  You need to communicate frequently.  But not exhaustingly.  In these times, people don’t want to read a novel.  You need to keep your updates short, targeted, and to the point.  Certainly outline the actions and steps that are being taken, but for lengthy details or the long list of FAQs, provide links or attachments.

Think about how people will feel.
When drafting or rehearsing your communications, focus on how people will feel afterwards.  Are you clear and straightforward?  Do you inspire hope and trust built on facts and truth?  Do you provide a sense of assurance that you and your colleagues are doing your utmost to preserve jobs and the company (if possible)?

Be visible.
Notwithstanding the excessive workload this has caused and will continue to cause you, this is not the time to retreat into the bunker.  Be visible to your employees.  Given that many employees are now working remotely, consider periodic status update video messages.  Again, we’re not talking Heaven’s Gate; make it something short and to the point.  Or you can conduct it via web sessions.  If you go that route, and you also want to field questions from employees, ask for them in advance.  You can then see what’s top of mind, and give those priority.  Also, it will be less stressful for you, as you won’t have to address questions in real time when you’re less prepared.

Now, more than ever, people are seeking real leadership from their leaders.  Leadership built on commitment, courage, integrity, and their trust in you.  I realize COVID-19 is nowhere to be found in your job description.  But as we all know, at the bottom of every job description there’s the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink clause that reads, “and other duties as assigned.” 

Consider it assigned.

Be safe, stay healthy, and lead well.