Leadership in the time of crisis

Times around us are uncertain. Organizations are experiencing unexpected strains, challenging the very tenets and principles that have yielded growth in the past. Everyone wants to know what is in future, but no one has any clear answer. The principles of extrapolation, based on ‘what has worked in the past would work in future’ has started to fail. The case studies of such backgrounds are either not effective or do not exist at all.

Yet, even in unprecedented times, people look up to leaders, sometimes not to know the answers but to simply find solace. This is because the leaders exuberate behaviour that gives the people confidence that the business/organisation would eventually adapt to the situation. So, what do these leaders do to make people rally behind them? How are their actions in crisis are different from action in business-as-usual conditions? What are the best practices that build resilient teams?

According to Gene Klann, author of our book Crisis Leadership, “During a crisis, the goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.” One of the toughest tasks that a leader has to perform is to take rational, tough and quick decisions so that the confidence of the team is not shaken up and the desired results are also achieved. The choices around him/her may be limited but the way these choices are weighed against each other, instil people’s confidence in the leader. In a smaller organization that is still nimble, the leader’s perspective, his approach and his actions are clearly visible. Hence, establishing trust through the right communication by explaining the rationale of business decisions can be done in a simple and effective manner. It gives a clear indication to its people if this crisis would pass and the organization will prevail or it would be otherwise. The people then stick together and emerge stronger. The confidence of togetherness gives them hope and optimism and above all, it gives them the strength to give their best.

In bigger organisations, on the other hand, the decision making is opaque because its rationale may not reach the bottom of the pyramid. Till the time it is business-as-usual, no one sees the need of challenging that status quo. Butduring the crisis, everyone starts questioning the methods, the objectives and the reasoning. Silos and groupism start to emerge. And since there is uncertainty, ‘question-every-decision’ becomes a way of venting muted emotions and of serving personal ambitions. This is the time when the leader needs to take the centre stage and share with openness and transparency the efforts that the organization is putting in to deal with crisis. He/She needs to share the challenges that are emerging and needs to be receptive to ideas and criticism. It is not important to have all the answers but to have the courage to face the questions. A genuine response is what people appreciate and rally behind. John Maxwell says, “You aren’t created in a crisis, you are revealed”.

During crisis, it is important for the leader to deal with the challenge at hand, but not to let the future be bleak. Great leaders adapt to the uncertainty of the moment and find a solution that creates momentum and push the organization out of the woods. A visionary leader focuses on two things -people and perspective and pulls the organization to emerge stronger at the other side of the tunnel.

Showing compassion towards people and taking out the time to understand their personal needs and struggles makes them feel like vital member of the family. As a leader, it is important to genuinely care about the team not just as employees but as family. Some people may not respond to this empathy and may break free but the ones that stick together are the ones that are here to stay through thick and thin. These people need to be nurtured through resilience-oriented conversations. This will foster positive futuristic attitude in the people which will give them the momentum to steam through the crisis. People need to be reminded that things will stabilize and they need help to envision their future once adversity has passed. In his book “Crucibles of Leadership”, Robert J. Thomas describes the approach “reframing the tension”. It is a way of changing the way one looks at the crisis by giving a positive frame of reference.

Landing into a crisis gives the leader two choices – to act or to react, to steer ahead or to get absorbed into it. True leadership is not to let the organization or business get consumed, but to sail through the tide against all odds, with positive perspective, being transparent, taking quick and compassionate decisions and believing in the people.

Further reading