Effective leadership during a crisis

Whether difficulty arises from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or the more common PR snafu, a crisis separates good leaders from bad leaders.

Las Vegas’s Mayor, for example, called for local businesses to re-open with the ludicrous command, “They better figure it out. That’s their job. That’s not the mayor’s job.”

Obviously that’s a failure of leadership at the highest level compared to instilling confidence and creating a simple, achievable plan. Here are other ways that great leaders and managers lead effectively, especially during a crisis:

  • Be honest. Tell it like it is to employees, customers, clients, constituents, etc. People do not respond well to surprises and are especially keen at the “smells like bullshit” test.
  • Be upfront about bad news. When having an important conversation, everyone tunes out to hear key words like firing or layoff. Begin the meeting by clearly stating the decision, then explain — in “human terms” — the factors that led to the decision and its effects on all stakeholders. The CEO of Carta, Henry Ward, recently put on a masterclass of transparency and compassion during the company’s layoffs.
  • Figure out what people need. Talk directly to those that are involved. Listen closely, communicate with empathy, and give more grace than normal.
  • Lead by example. When making new changes, do the same things that are being asked of others. For instance, if emphasizing work/life balance, don’t email at 1:37am. If suggesting business continues as usual, don’t wear pajamas to a video meeting.
  • Show sacrifice. A crisis requires making hard decisions. Lead by making personal sacrifices such as working additional hours or reducing salary to keep more employees.

Good leaders and managers naturally rise to the occasion during a crisis — being decisive when faced with uncertainty, communicating clearly and humanly, and creating order from chaos — and benefit from more trust and commitment during non-crisis times.