Category: Leading through change and challenge
Content type: Insight

Leading through crisis

We’re in the ultimate VUCA environment, and it’s one that most of us are neither experienced nor equipped to lead in. We’re in uncharted territory, we’ve got little in terms of a map, and we’ve been given the daunting task of navigating our business and our people our way through it.

In our experience of supporting leaders in high pressure, uncertain and fast evolving times, there are five things that are important.

1. Provide safety and certainty

In our last blog, we shared some insight about threat, challenge and response. In times like these, people may be feeling unsafe, uncertain and out of their comfort zones.

In such times, our jobs as leaders is to provide safety and as much certainty as practically possible. With little long term certainty, we need to think about creating stepping stones, not suspension bridges.  Focusing on what is known, in the here and now, is key. Provide short term certainty and clarity, and be careful about promising a grand vision that people know is not guaranteed. It’ll erode your credibility and trustworthiness as a leader.

2. Make ‘best’ decisions

At a time like this, decision making is hard, and it’s likely that your previous approach to decision making may not cut the mustard. There’s a need to be in full receipt of available facts, invite input, and then make fast decisions. Neither unilateral nor consensus decision making work here.

Make the best decision you can with the available information in the time you’ve got. There may be no ‘right’ decision, only multiple different directions, and curb your desire to make THE RIGHT decision, waiting for all facts. Get comfortable making best decisions with as complete a set of facts as available in the time you’ve got.

3. Communicate clearly and empower people to communicate clearly

Reduce ambiguity by providing enough detail in the short term. Be ready to keep communicating – as things are evolving so quickly, it’s likely you’ll be going through the decision making and communicating phase daily if not twice daily.

Once you’ve provided direction, then empower people to implement your decisions. In a time of reduced autonomy, be wary of adopting a command and control style of leadership which will further reduce people’s sense of control. Instead, mandate and trust them to solve problems and move to action.

4. Build a connectedness culture

In times of crisis, connectedness can suffer. At the time of writing, we’re working (and living) remotely, so isolation and disconnectedness can become a significant issue.  

As a leader, we need to prioritise building a high connectedness culture and environment. We can lead the way with constant clear communication, create a tightly connected leadership team, and ask that our leaders and managers do the same with their teams. Some may need support and guidance about how best to do that. It’ll take more time and energy than normal but it’s a vital element of your job right now.

5. Put your own oxygen mask on first

If you’re going to have a chance of doing points 1-4, you’ll need to take good care of yourself. Long hours, high stress and lack of sleep is a deadly combination that leads to skewed decision making, impaired ability to focus on facts and emotionally led communication. Slip into this mode as a senior leader and your organisation has a problem on its hands.

Now is the time – if ever there was – to be taking care of your mental and physical health. If you haven’t got a good coach or calm and logical sounding board, strongly consider investing in one. Put your own oxygen mask on first if you want to be capable of leading your people and organisation through this crisis.

Emerging stronger

Lastly, remember to take time to reflect, learn and improve. It’s the times that we’re most challenged and pushed out of our comfort zone that can be the periods of richest learning and development. Carving out some time, with your coach and/or leadership team, to reflect on what you’re learning about good leadership, yourself and each other is time well spent. You’ll come through it stronger and a better leader.


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