Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all seen some really great, and some really poor, examples of crisis leadership.  Within our own organizations, some unexpected leaders have stepped up to meet the challenge, while others have been a little disappointing.

Unfortunately, no one knows if they’ll be a good crisis leader until the worst actually happens.  Even those in traditional leadership positions don’t always live up to expectations.  It doesn’t matter how many books you read or seminars you attend, there is no amount of business contingency planning that can truly prepare you to manage a crisis.  Crisis leadership can be difficult, but there are some tried and true strategies that can make crisis leadership a little easier.

1. Take a Breath Before You React

When a challenging situation suddenly comes up, it might be your gut reaction to instantly respond.  Unless we’re talking about your office being literally on fire and you need to get everyone out, an instant response may be a mistake.  For most other situations, good crisis leadership means that you take a breath, gather your thoughts, and assess the situation.  An immediate reaction might not be the best way to handle the situation.

If you’re too quick to jump into a crisis, all your decisions might be based on incomplete or inaccurate information.  On the other hand, waiting too long can also cause problems.  Take a beat and figure out where you’re at in a crisis before jumping into action.

2. Crisis Leadership Must Be Decisive

During a crisis, multiple members of your team may be called upon to provide input, lend support, or even take the lead.  It makes sense to assemble a team to manage a crisis and to listen to the suggestions and experiences of others.  There may also be times when the CEO is not the best choice to lead a response.  Sometimes crisis leadership means that you need to deputize someone else on your leadership team to take the lead and be the point of the spear in managing the crisis.

Regardless of who leads the crisis response, leaders must be decisive.  A wishy-washy response engenders doubt in everyone within an organization.  Employees, partners, and customers need to know that your organization has the situation well in hand, you have devised a plan, and you have a way forward to manage the crisis.  Indecisive crisis responses lead to doubt, skepticism, and chaos within your organization.

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3. Crisis Leadership Requires Flexibility

Situations often change during the management of a crisis.  That’s a lesson that COVID-19 has certainly taught all of us.  Few of us thought that our country, and much of the world, would be completely shut down for months.  Some of our partners expected a short time off, but still haven’t come back online.  Other customers saw a huge spike and have been working overtime to keep up with demand.  Along with the demands and executive orders of Federal, State, and local governments, it has been difficult to know what to expect and to plan ahead.

COVID-19 has forced us all to be flexible and embrace new information as it becomes available.  It’s a good lesson in any type of crisis leadership.  Holding fast to your first impression and initial analysis of the situation can cause a lot of problems and lead to serious ramifications for your company.  An organization needs to continuously frame and reframe a crisis, until it is resolved, in order to manage it most effectively.

4. Over-Communicate with Employees

When your organization is in the midst of a crisis, it affects everyone in the company at some level, but may also affect people and organizations outside of your company.  That makes communication a crucial component in your crisis management.  It is absolutely vital to constantly and consistently communicate with your employees, partners, and customers about everything relative to the crisis.  It’s important to not only communicate what they need to hear to be assured that you have the situation under control but also to communicate important things that they need to know about the crisis.

It’s also vital that you control the message by designating one person to be the spokesperson internally in your organization and externally to your partners, customers, and the public.  By choosing one person to convey those messages, you can be assured that the message is clear, consistent, and conveys the information necessary in the manner your organization wants it to be conveyed.  This ensures that everyone is on the same page throughout the crisis and prevents confusion or misinformation.

5. Don’t Sugar Coat

When communicating during a crisis, it’s easy to want to pacify everyone and sugarcoat the situation, but that’s the wrong way to go.  Part of crisis leadership is to be as honest and transparent about the situation as possible.  It erodes the faith and trust employees have in their leaders if crisis communications aren’t truthful.  People want the truth.

Wrapping it Up

It can be difficult to demonstrate highly effective crisis leadership, but following solid strategies, in conjunction with your organization’s business contingency planning, can help you get through it.  Whether you’ve witnessed really great leadership in your team or identified areas that need improvement, there’s little doubt that we’ve all learned a lot in managing our responses to the COVID pandemic.

While this crisis will eventually come to an end, one thing is certain – Crisis leadership is definitely challenging, but we can be sure that it will not be the last time we have the opportunity to grow as leaders through a crisis.

*Updated 6/28/2022*

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