Serving as the leader of an organization is always challenging. But in times of crisis, fulfilling that role can be overwhelming. There are a few essential outlooks and practices that will help CEOs of any type of organization rise to the top during a crisis — whether a pandemic or other natural disaster outside of your control, or an internal crisis within the organization.
In a time of uncertainty, people at every level of an organization are looking for a leader who can acknowledge and successfully cope with reality, but who can also keep everyone’s spirits up by infusing a sense of genuine confidence, optimism, and purpose into the situation.
When everything seems to be going wrong and everyone is looking to you for solutions, security, and normalcy, here are a few of the key takeaways that experts and experienced leaders want you to keep in mind:
This is easier said than done, but it is essential for a leader to hold onto a sense of perspective and to manage his or her own emotions. The leader’s core role is to keep losses at a minimum during a crisis, and to maintain normal operations in so far as this is possible.
Keeping your cool at times like this requires a fair degree of self-discipline and emotional intelligence. It is a deliberate choice that a leader must make, despite the fact that we as human beings are wired to respond to crisis and chaos by escalating our sense of stress. We come preprogrammed to “fight, flight, or freeze” when confronted with any type of danger.
Part of learning to keep your calm in a crisis involves listening to the signals from your own body and mind. Stay attuned to what may be a shifting reality, since events tend to move rapidly in a crisis. Also remain aware of how you are responding physically, mentally, and emotionally to the crisis. Narrow or broaden your perspective as facts on the ground lead you to do so.
Staying deliberate, focused, and intentional in this way helps calm your own inner chaos and enables you to see problems more clearly as they arise. This outlook may even empower you to see barriers as opportunities to learn new strategies and improve in the future.
Look for the best information
Leaders dealing with crises must constantly stay alert as large amounts of new and often bewilderingly complex data and viewpoints flow into the situation. Your job as a leader will be to figure out which information is most factual, current, and reliable.
Seek out the most thoughtful and trustworthy sources of news and information, whether those consist of respected local experts, government officials, media, or confidantes within and outside your organization.
Avoid getting your information from single sources, or sources with a single point of view. Look for any hidden agendas — financial, political, or otherwise — that your sources may bring to the table. Social media is particularly prone to creating information “silos” and echo chambers in which people reinforce each another’s often erroneous takes on an emotionally charged situation.
Communicate clearly and consistently
Share information throughout your organization by every channel available to you, and remain accessible and transparent. Information is a vital resource, particularly during a crisis — people are usually more anxious and fearful when they don’t know what’s going on, as opposed to when they do, even when it’s bad news across the board. Make sure to convey clear information, stay on point, and repeat your message often.
People often miss or gloss over information the first time it crosses their path. By continuing to repeat and reinforce important key messages, you ensure that more people understand them and taken them to heart. This will help dispel fears, rumors, and emotional distress among your team, give them actionable guidance for how they should respond, and assist your organization in staying on track and operational through the crisis.
Manage for the future
Remember that, particularly in a crisis, you’re managing not only for the immediate emergency, but for the future. Work on anticipating the issues you’ll have to confront the following week, as well as over the longer term for the following year. You’re not only dealing with the present; you’re using what you’re learning in the present to plan for the future, so that the next crisis can be more manageable. Of course, the immediate crisis will take precedent most of the time. However, make sure you build out comprehensive plans for security, safety, health, and other mission-critical functions.
Meanwhile, trust your team. Avoid disrupting their rhythm by micromanaging as they work to solve problems at their level. Delegate to them whenever possible, and support your emerging leaders as they, too, take responsibility for hard decisions and learn from mistakes.
One of the central responsibilities of a leader is to be accessible, especially during a crisis. Even when there are times you can’t be physically present for your team, make sure they know how to get in touch with you. At any time of uncertainty or danger, your team needs to hear from you often. They need to see you clear-headed, calm, resolute, and in charge. Being accessible and open with them at these especially vulnerable moments means that your presence will renew their hope and confidence in you, your organization, and themselves.