5 Strategies for Leading During a Crisis (or any change)

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader. —Max De Pree

Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.James Lane Allen1

We can’t tell you how you should react or how your company should behave during a crisis. Every company is different and so is every leader. What’s right for one isn’t right for another.

There’s no one “correct” response

Despite there being no universal way to lead during a crisis, there are strategies you can employ that will allow you to adapt and ignite your leadership style to effectively navigate crises and other situations that involve change.

The Dynamics of Crises

[W]e are wiser when in the midst of adversity. It is prosperity that takes away righteousness.Lucius Annaeus Seneca 2

Crises interfere with the normal functions of an organization and thwart existing strategic plans.3 They often challenge what we believe to be true and require new ways of both thinking and acting.4 They are situations of significant and constant change.

Many people treat a crisis as a single event and then attempt to deal with its repercussions. But, a crisis isn’t a single event: it is ongoing, changing, and evolving.5 By their nature, they create unstable conditions.6 What worked one week, may not work the next week.

The novel, unstable, and high-impact nature of crises makes them hard to deal with and puts pressure and stress on an organization and its members.7 Time pressure, risk, and numerous, constantly changing goals in the face of a disrupted environment that threatens an organization’s status quo become the normal working conditions.8 9

Built into every crisis is the choice to respond. To respond appropriately, you have to accept that the situation requires a change in course and then intervene to adapt to this new reality.10 Leading under these conditions looks very different than leading during situations of stability.  

Even if you choose not to alter your course during a crisis, a crisis will, in most cases, ultimately change the environment around you and force your organization to adapt to the new reality or be left behind. 

Organizations Under Crisis: Creating Resilience

Many leaders assume that if they can just get through a crisis, everything will return to normal. So they hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. In the meantime, their competitors are reshaping the market to their advantage. Emerging from a crisis, markets never look the same as they did going into it.Bill George11

When businesses are stable and growing, people inside the business tend to be resistant to change. They put on blinders and become overconfident that future success will mimic past success and that the current strategy is the optimal one; they become defensive against even the suggestion of change.12 

Then, when a crisis hits, many executives enter a period of denial: wishful thinking bolstered by the previous trend of growth creates a feeling of invulnerability.13

This feeling of invulnerability makes them more susceptible to the effects of a crisis.14 Fundamentally, what happens is that they fail to understand that situations of crisis require resilience, not robustness. Robustness is the ability to withstand change; resilience is the ability to recover from change by adapting to it.15

Post-crisis, the environment usually looks a lot different, so just trying to withstand the change results in a lot of effort just to stand still, while the rest of the environment—and competition—moves forward.

Scientists, with a nod to Alice in Wonderland, call this the Red Queen Paradox: to just stay evenly competitive, you have to keep moving as fast as the competition.16 So, when a company doesn’t respond to the looming environmental pressures and the competitive pressures it produces, the company—despite its effort to buttress itself against the crisis—isn’t evolving to meet the change, resulting in a disadvantage. This is the danger of relying on robustness to combat crises. 

Focusing on robustness is tempting when things are going so well before the crisis because robustness relates to stability—the ability to return to the same state after a disruption— and who wouldn’t want to return to a state of stable growth?17 But, what is stable in an old paradigm won’t be stable in a new one.

This is where resilience comes in. Resilience is a type of learning where an organization faces adversity, adapts and adjusts to it, and becomes stronger.18 You seek new information, assimilate it, and convert it to a behavioral advantage.19 20 It doesn’t result in a loss of identity; it doesn’t change anything fundamental about the organization: the organization still solves the same problems for the same customers.21 It just gets better at doing it in the new environment than it would’ve if it remained steadfast in its desire to maintain the status quo.

Resilience doesn’t involve a radical change, it involves a pivot. When you pivot, you need a place to pivot from.22 That place is your company’s purpose and vision—what your company’s stand for and wants to achieve beyond profits.

A pivot isn’t a radical leap–you’re still the same company at your core. A pivot doesn’t change the function of an organization, it just changes its form: what you do is the same, but the way you do it becomes different. 23 

When you choose resilience instead of robustness, you gain an advantage over your competition to get a head start in the new business environment. This gives you the opportunity to not only position yourself as an industry leader but also to shape the industry to play to your strengths.24

Every crisis has the potential for success or failure.25 Achieving success is much more likely if you choose resilience. To choose resilience, you have to choose to lead and guide your organization to embrace change. 

Leadership During Crisis

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.Max De Pree26

People often treat being a leader as an endpoint, something they achieve as a result of working their way to higher and higher positions.27 They treat “leader” as a position that they can possess.28

Being a leader isn’t related to a position—it can happen anywhere in an organization. Traditionally, people treat positions of power, like being an executive, as synonymous with being a leader. But, there is a difference between being an executive and a leader: one is a position and one is a discipline.

Being an executive gives people more potential power to affect change, but it doesn’t make them a leader. And, their “executiveness” only lasts as long as they’re in the position: it will be there before and after them.29

In the best-case scenarios, they’ll use the time they occupy the position to become an effective leader that leaves the organization better off than when they started. Leaders must try to take the people they lead somewhere else, somewhere better; when you lead you can’t stay in the same place.

Despite popular, romantic notions of leadership, it isn’t something you have or don’t have.30 It is something that you cultivate.

A crisis will require different leadership skills than those needed in stable times.31 But, it doesn’t alter the fundamental discipline of being a leader.

The Discipline of Being a Leader

The most important characteristic of being a leader is wanting to lead.32 This may seem obvious, but most people—even those in executive positions—lack the desire to lead, which is compounded by the fact that they also don’t want to follow.33

Being a leader is a choice.

Choosing to cultivate the discipline of leadership isn’t about trying to achieve perfection. Instead, it’s about creating an ongoing process of constant improvement: for yourself, your followers, and your organization.

When you lead, you help people navigate towards a common goal.34 You don’t force them to go there. You create shared meaning in achieving that goal: you make that goal matter to everyone who follows you.35

To make a goal matter, you first have to believe in it yourself. Then you have to consider why the people who follow you should care. You have to communicate that clearly. And, finally, you have to help guide people towards that goal. When you do all of that effectively, you engender confidence, support, and an inner desire to achieve the organization’s goals.36

Doing that effectively—and more so under conditions of crisis or change—requires more than just constantly leading. You have to navigate between two different disciplines: management and leadership.

Management and Leadership

Too often people treat management as something negative: as if it is a lesser version of leadership.37 Many organizational structures reinforce this notion: they make “leaders” synonymous with executives and place them higher up in the organization than “managers.”

But, just like leadership, management is a discipline that you can choose to embrace or not.38 And, just like leadership, most people don’t embrace and cultivate the discipline of management.

Management is about the present; leadership is about the future.39

In times of stability, the tendency is to focus on management: improving the current performance.40 For many companies, this is often enough, or at least as far as they want to go. And, it usually works. But, in times of crisis when change is happening, you can’t just look at the details and you certainly can’t just focus on short-term performance. You have to see the big picture and adapt. You have to look beyond the now to the long-term.41 You have to alter the form of the organization to adapt to the new reality.

In a crisis, you have to constantly navigate back and forth between management and leadership.42 If you lead without managing, you end up setting goals but fail to enact the day-to-day behaviors that achieve those goals; if you manage without leading, you generate a lot of activity that doesn’t achieve any meaningful goal.43 Leadership creates and nurtures the vision; management makes sure it has a measurable impact.44

When you focus on management, you exercise authority and control: you ensure that performance levels are met, tasks are accomplished, and people’s interests are taken care of and they are rewarded.45 46 47 You actively focus on the specifics of execution: the things that need to get accomplished to achieve a goal. 48

When you focus on leadership, you exercise influence: you kindle something inside the hearts and minds of your followers and they become impelled to act to achieve the organization’s goals.49 Achieving the organization’s goals not only helps the organization achieve its purpose and vision, but it also helps people fulfill their higher-level needs and gives them the desire to achieve things beyond themselves.50 51 52 You motivate people with meaningful and realistic optimism.

When you manage, you look to the short-term; when you lead you look to the long term and the bigger picture.53 Management is about the what; leadership is about the why.54

Combining these two disciplines is critical during a crisis.

How to Be an Effective Leader During a Crisis

Being a leader during a crisis requires navigating a complex environment where you have to take into account three dimensions: yourself, the situation, and the stakeholders—the different groups of people who are affected by your response to the situation:

  • You: To know how you should lead you have to be in touch with your organization’s purpose and values, your own values, and your own biases. You need to know how you tend to react and be able to step back and reflect to make sure you are responding to the situation to the best of your ability and not just resorting to default tendencies.
  • Situation: You have to accept the reality of the situation and treat it as no better or worse than it is. You have to try and understand what’s really going on at a deep level, not just the effects you see on the surface. And, you have to try and change it to make it better for your organization and your stakeholders.
  • Stakeholders: When making decisions and taking actions you have to take into account the needs of different stakeholders if you want to be able to move people toward achieving a shared goal. What people want and how they’re affected will vary between groups of people—people below you in the organization, people above you, people in different departments, and sometimes even people in different organizations.55

Leading during a crisis makes you constantly move between applying the disciplines of management and leadership as you also move between looking at the whole picture and the individual parts.56 To do that successfully, you need to take into account four processes: sensemaking, decision-making, meaning-making, and coordination.57 58

Sensemaking

Sensemaking is simply making sense of a situation.59 Although it is simple in definition, the process can be the most difficult because it forces you to confront your own biases and be aware of the potential biases of people supplying you information.60

If you are not aware of your own biases, you may interpret the information you receive in a way that does not reflect reality or that only scratches the surface and ignores the root cause of what’s really going on.61 This could be detrimental because you end up creating a context for decision-making that reflects your biases more than it reflects the situation.62

Under crisis, sensemaking is is difficult even without biases: it’s easy to become overwhelmed as you are under time-pressure to diagnose and understand a problem with incomplete and often ambiguous information. 63 64

Sensemaking is important because it forms the structure for all the other processes you engage in.65 Sensemaking is not about a solution, it’s about understanding in order to achieve clarity so that when you do make a decision, you’re making it to the best of your ability given what you know.

Because new information constantly flows and you need to evaluate why your previous actions were a success or a failure, sensemaking isn’t something you do once, but something you constantly do as you adjust your understanding closer to what is really going on.66 67

Decision-Making

Whereas sensemaking is objective—you’re trying to understand the situation as it really is—decision-making is subjective. There isn’t one correct decision to be made given the context you created during sensemaking. You have to determine what is right for you as a leader and what is right for your organization. And, that’s going to be different with different leaders and different organizations.

As with sensemaking, you have to be vigilant that you’re making the best decision given what you know and not just defaulting to your usual style of decision-making.68 Additionally, under the high-pressure environment of a crisis, all people tend to default to making decisions using a restrictive-style of decision-making.69 In other words, people tend to focus on a specific situation rather than looking at the whole picture—a comprehensive style of decision-making. While focusing on a specific situation under normal circumstances can be fruitful, doing so under a crisis can be detrimental as you may miss a critical piece of the complex puzzle.

When you engage in decision-making, you’re likely to create more than one possible solution.70 To assess the different solutions, you need to take into account the situation and then interpret how you should act in terms of your values and your organization’s values, vision, and purpose. Staying true to your values is hard under normal conditions and it is even harder during a crisis.71 But, without staying true to these values, you have no point to pivot from and you can’t determine the best way to make sense of the information for your unique organization.

Meaning-Making

As a leader, people look to you to make sense of the crisis for them and provide realistic hope.72 During meaning-making, you have to communicate your sensemaking and decision-making so that it has meaning for your stakeholders. This meaning is created as a result of the processes that came before it.73 You have to explain what is happening, why it is happening, what you are doing about it, and what you need people to do.74 75

You need to connect the decisions with the core values and purpose of the organization.76 And, you’ll need to communicate that in a different way to different groups of stakeholders: what is meaningful for one group is not necessarily meaningful for every group.77 In doing so, you build confidence in your abilities, give assurance that the company’s purpose is still the same, create an understanding that the situation requires doing something different than usual, and motivate each group to join you in achieving the organization’s goals during the crisis.78 79

Coordination

Under crisis conditions, networks of people will form spontaneously as people attempt to help each other deal with a situation.80 It is up to you, as a leader, to shape and coordinate these networks to achieve the best outcome for the organization and your stakeholders.81

The foundation of coordination is trust. Where there is trust, there is the perception of reliability: people will find your communications more credible and be more willing to follow you towards achieving the organizations’ goals.82

Trust is built up over time by people seeing and believing that you have their best interests in mind. Under normal conditions, this takes a long time. But, under a crisis, where conditions of uncertainty are high and you display signs that you are taking into account people’s best interests, a form of transitional trust—what is known as swift trust—occurs: people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt more quickly than they would under normal circumstances.83 This swift trust is built by relating to the audience. It can be transformed into real trust—or destroyed—by your ongoing actions.

With this basis of trust, you coordinate groups of stakeholders that have a role in enacting the decisions you made. During this coordination, you take on a role akin to an orchestra conductor, using the disciplines of management and leadership to get people to achieve the necessary milestones.84 85

Navigating the Proccess of Leading During a Crisis

Once we humbly accept the reality of the problem’s complexity and instability, we can give ourselves permission just to focus on what to do next and not worry about all the future next moves that might be down the road.Edgar H. Schein86

The best way we’ve found for navigating everything a leader needs to do during a crisis is the POP-DOC Loop. 

The POP-DOC loop was created by the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI). NPLI is an initiative from Harvard that both researches crises and trains leaders across government, profit, and non-profit agencies.87 

Before starting the POP-DOC loop, you need to make sure you’re not just acting out of instinct, which is usually what happens when a crisis hits. 

Preparing for the POP-DOC Loop

A crisis activates your survival instincts and your freeze, flight, fight response.88 Although this response can be useful when you are in physical danger, when you need to use your higher-level thinking and reflect on yourself and your own biases, the situation as a whole, and the people you need to lead, allowing your survival instincts to take over can be detrimental: you won’t be able to operate at the level you need to.

If you don’t reset this survival instinct, it can continually affect the actions you take. 

To reset it, you need to perform some sort of routine that gets your body and brain to believe the situation is safe.89 This routine can be anything that you develop that you automatically perform. Having a system like this is useful even outside of crises as it allows you to stop default behaviors, step back, and see if that type of behavior is the best for the problem you are solving.  

Breath exercises are one of the best ways to reset your system. Our favorite routine for resetting yourself is to apply two breathing techniques from Dr. Andrew Weil in sequence:

  • The Relaxing Breath: This breathing technique will clear your mind and put you at ease. Start by pressing the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth, right behind the front teeth. Exhale through the mouth. Inhale for a count of four through the nose. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale, making noise, for a count of eight through the mouth. Repeat three times.
  • The Stimulating Breath: You’ve cleared your mind, now it’s time to stimulate your mind for the work ahead. Close your mouth. Rapidly inhale and exhale through your nose. Aim for about three breaths per second. Continue this for fifteen seconds. With time, you can increase the duration.90

Once you have reset your system with a routine, you can start to engage your higher-level functions to travel through the POP-DOC loop and effectively lead through a crisis.

The POP-DOC Loop

The POP-DOC loop is composed of six steps divided into two phases. The first phase involves thinking—perceiving, orienting, and predicting; the second phase involves action—deciding, operationalizing, and communicating:

  • Perceive: You remain open-minded and take in as much information as you can. You focus on both the important pieces of the puzzle and the whole picture.
  • Orient: You look for patterns in the information you perceive to get a better understanding of the information. You determine what information is useful and what information isn’t.
  • Predict: You use the information and patterns to predict what will happen next. You understand that your prediction doesn’t need to be perfect. The goal of prediction is to have you focus on the future and the next steps.
  • Decide: You decide what to do, given what you predict about the situation and how it will affect your organization and stakeholders. Your decisions are guided by both facts and intuition. You make sure your decisions aren’t guided by your biases.
  • Operationalize: You transform your decisions into actions. You engage others to help you implement your decisions.
  • Communicate: You both give information to followers and get information from them. You are clear about what the situation is, what is happening, what you know and don’t know, and what you are going to do next.91

The POP-DOC loop happens continually throughout the crisis. Once you finish all six steps, you start again, taking into account the results of the decisions you implemented and any new information you gathered.92

Since each crisis is novel, successfully navigating a crisis requires a degree of improvisation.93 By going through the loop over and over again you are constantly learning and getting better at understanding the crisis and how you should respond to it. It allows you to be critical and get continual feedback.94 And, it allows you to act quickly by taking small steps that you constantly evaluate, instead of waiting a long time to implement some big initiative that may or may not work.

Engaging in constant learning signals to stakeholders that you’re trying to do your best and will increase their feelings of trust towards you.95 And, with that trust, you’ll be better able to mobilize them to achieve the goals of the organization during a crisis.

5 Strategies for Leading During Crisis

You can’t take somebody else to a place you’ve not been. Leaders have to go there first.Tony Robbins96

Being a leader during a crisis is not easy. To aid you in your goals, we’ve distilled what you need to do into five strategies that will help you employ and execute everything you need to during a crisis.

Strategy #1: Reconnect with Your Values, Vision, and Purpose

To be able to act, you have to know whether or not your actions are in line with both who you are as a leader and what your organization stands for.97

To inspire others, you first have to inspire yourself.98

Start by considering why you choose to lead.99 What is it about leading people that gives your life meaning? By understanding your motivation to lead, you can connect deeply with your own values and use them to guide you. Doing so will lead you to more fully self-actualize, allowing you to become more in touch with the needs of others, like the stakeholders.100 101

Once you know what guides you personally, turn to what guides your organization. What is the purpose of your organization? What does it stand for? What are its ultimate goals? By connecting with what guides your organization, you can both determine what types of decisions are in line with your purpose and whether or not they will still allow your to achieve your ultimate goal—your company vision.

When you combine your personal purpose with that of your organization’s, you have the ability to connect stakeholders with a bigger mission. This is important during times of stability, but it is even more critical during times of crisis. When people have a mission that is bigger themselves that speaks to them personally, they will invest themselves and take an active role to achieve a common goal.

Strategy #2: Reflect Daily, and Honestly

When you reflect honestly, you get to know yourself and the situation better. You slowly understand how you tend to respond, what your biases are, and what values you invest in the most.102 And, you gain a deeper understanding of the situation you face, instead of just accepting your first impressions as being representative of reality.103

Reflecting regularly better prepares you to face each moment in a changing situation as it gives you greater awareness.104

In being honest about yourself and the situation, you gain humility, which helps you gain a broader perspective. You understand that no single person—including yourself—knows all the information, that people are presenting information from different viewpoints, and that anyone can have a critical piece of information.105 This makes you less likely to dismiss people and leads you to evaluate the situation less encumbered by dysfunctional beliefs.106 

The best way to reflect is to keep a daily journal.107 Doing so lets you set aside time away from responding to people and critically evaluate how you are handling the crisis. You can refine your values, catch yourself making biased decisions, and work out what’s really going on. It also allows you to take on different points of view and see how other people would approach the situation, giving you a broader perspective. And, it allows you the opportunity to become emotionally detached and see the situation more objectively—something that isn’t good when trying to respond to stakeholders’ needs but is useful when trying to make sense of the situation.108

Strategy #3: Don’t Wait for Perfection

When dealing with a change on the scale of a crisis, it’s tempting to keep waiting until you have a perfect understanding of the situation and a perfect strategy before you act. Under normal circumstances, you can usually delay your decisions with few repercussions. But, under a crisis delaying action can be dangerous and perfection is impossible to achieve when constant change is the norm.109

What is possible is to keep getting slightly better. 

Make a decision based on your understanding of yourself, your organization, the stakeholders, and the situation. Evaluate the effects of your actions and any new information. Repeat. 

By accepting that your decisions won’t be perfect, you reduce the potential for both frustration and decision paralysis.110 And, you become less fixated on being correct, making you less likely to keep pursuing a path that isn’t working. 

As you continue to take and evaluate your actions, it’s useful to keep in mind the words of Nobel-Prize winner Richard Feynman:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.111

Strategy #4: Communicate Clearly

In the words of professor Alfred E. Kahn, “If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”112

When you communicate, make sure everything is easily understood. Don’t use complex language to try and sound like you have authority. If your words are too complex, you will create confusion. Not everybody will hear the same thing: there will be more than one interpretation of what is going on and what your goals are.113

Communicating clearly gets everyone on the same page so that everyone can act together in the service of the same goal.114

Also, when you communicate, you have to consider your audience. What one group of stakeholders needs to hear and how they need to hear it will vary between groups. Evaluate your decisions in terms of your audience’s needs before you decide what to communicate and how to communicate with them. 

Finally, being clear also forces you to communicate candidly. And, when you’re candid with other people, they’ll be more likely to trust what you say—becoming less likely to create their own rumors—and they’ll be more likely to be candid back to you.115 116 This culture of candor is critical for you to get the information you need to make sense of the situation and make decisions.

Strategy #5: Empower Other People to Lead 

You can’t get through a crisis alone.117 You need the help of others. And, that will require them to lead other people.

People can use their skills and the power and resources of the networks and relationships they build—the social capital—to help you and the organization achieve your goals.118 119 120 

Being a leader doesn’t just exist at the top of an organization. In organizations that have people who are true leaders—not just “leaders” in title alone—the ability and desire to lead propagates itself across the organization. It becomes a property of the organization, instead of just an individual person.121

People who are empowered to lead will take greater ownership and put more effort into getting the right things done.122 They will feel a deeper relationship with you and a deeper sense of purpose. They will become more loyal to you and the organization and become more invested in the organization’s success.123

Empowering others to lead starts with getting your ego out of the way. It requires you to use your inner desire to lead to become a servant leader.124 In doing so, you put the success of the organization and the people the organization serves above personal gain and recognition.125 126

As Father Strickland, a 19th-century missionary, said, “A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.” 127

Onward

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!.
The Manager in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’e Faust128

Navigating a crisis can take a big toll on you. So, as you take care of your organization and others, make sure you also take care of yourself. It’s tempting to keep trying to push hard through a crisis. But, you will do your best work if you also take breaks to rest and refuel yourself.129 130

A positive effect of a crisis is that it will, by forcing you to face adversity, make you a stronger leader; it will force you to become more in touch with your values and your organization’s.131 And, how you respond in a crisis will make people believe they’ve seen your true colors, opening them up to strengthening their trust and loyalty towards you.132

Finally, as you lead through the crisis, also take into account how your actions are shaping the type of organization you will lead post-crisis.133 You don’t want to just play defense and protect your organization. You want to also play offense and shape your organization so that it will be poised to lead your category in the new, post-crisis world.

P.S. If you want to gain greater clarity about your organization and create a company vision that leads to action, we’ve created The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Company Vision. You can read more about it by clicking here.

_______________________

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  38. A lot of the literature on leadership focuses on two types of leadership: transactional and transformational. For the purpose of both simplicity and utility, we’ve grouped transactional leadership with management and transformational leadership with leadership in this article.
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