Crisis leadership 101: What it takes to lead during turbulent times

Written by: Elvire Jaspers

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The role of business leadership has undergone a rigorous shakeup in recent months thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As the architect of the current recession, the pandemic has forced businesses on a global scale to rethink their approach to leadership during times of crisis. Despite many global business leaders’ inclination to always be prepared for the worst, from cybercrimes to even full-scale war, nobody could have prepared for a situation quite like the social and economic disruption we find ourselves facing. Crises such as COVID-19 have the power to make or break a leader. What is required is bold, decisive, and adaptable leadership if businesses around the world most affected by the pandemic intend to weather the storm and come out of it stronger than before.

So what does it take to lead during uncertain times such as this? What personal and professional attributes are leaders required to possess in order to steer their business and people through turbulent seas to reach the waters of a calmer horizon? We have identified 5 key attributes all business leaders, big and small, must adopt if they want any chance of remaining profitable and relevant in the post-pandemic future.

1. Be transparent

Clear and concise communication is the most fundamental component of any form of leadership, but nowhere does it play a more crucial role than in crisis leadership. Communication may come in a variety of forms depending on the context of crisis response, but the most crucial elements for trustworthy communication are honesty, empathy, and transparency. Omit one or all of these elements and your communication will amount to nothing.

In order to successfully communicate with your people, it is important for leaders to first play an active role in identifying and understanding the questions their team may have. When hit with an unprecedented crisis, leaders must quickly gather as much factual information as possible from experts and specialists to begin formulating a plan of action to combat the disruption. Once a plan has been formulated, leaders must communicate this plan openly and honestly to their team to dispel any misunderstanding and panic. It is crucial for leaders to adopt complete transparency from the ground-up to gain a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ style of teamwork. During times of crisis, nobody wants to feel left behind or inconsequential, so it is therefore imperative for leaders to stress the importance of collaboration and cooperation during uncertain times.

According to a Deloitte Crisis Leadership report, leaders must continuously frame the crisis to their teams in order to get an overview of the current and potential impact. They must clearly communicate with their investors and stakeholders, as well as their staff, to ensure everybody realises the gravity of the situation and the role they play in helping to overcome it. This involves continual analysis and re-identification according to new information presented. Crisis leaders must adapt and be flexible to new information so they can continually chart a roadmap to recovery armed with the latest variables for forecasting. It is important to remember that these roadmaps might change overnight when new information is acquired, so re-plotting the approach is not only inevitable but necessary. 

2. Be decisive

During times of crisis, the prevalence of good and bad information festers as confusion sets in to cloud any hope of positive navigation. Leaders must try to cancel out the background noise of unverified rumours and focus on the cold, hard facts of the situation to get a handle on the situation. Leaders must not vacillate when presented with the latest information, but rather must be adaptable to new information to be able to pivot in a new direction in a sharp and decisive manner.

As situations may change overnight, leaders must embrace adaptability and throw out any rigid business maneuvers which have not been field-tested for moments of crisis. This means leaders must at times forget what has come before and meet the uncertainty with speed and decisiveness. Often this will involve having to make snap decisions that hold business interests and priorities in a precarious balance. When traditional business stakeholder consensus is possible, this is more easily manageable. However, in times of crisis, there is no time for consensus and so business leaders must go into survival mode and do what they think is best at the time. Gut instinct and intuition play a major role in this. Great leaders are able to process new information quickly and rapidly identify what matters most to make decisions as and when they occur to stay on top of the situation. 

3. Be ready, always

Nobody could have predicted the ravaging social and economic disruption on a global scale caused by COVID-19. However, crisis leadership should account for the unaccountable and unpredictable. Effective leaders should prepare for all sorts of possible crises and uncertainties which have the power to derail any progress and momentum. Great leaders should always be prepared for the worst to mitigate the effects of being caught off-guard, in order to be the first to actively respond.

Leaders should undergo continuous crisis leadership workshops to remain abreast of the latest tactical responses to a growing list of potential threats and crises. While some may see this as preparing for a test that will never come, great leaders are under no illusion that the status quo is a fixed phenomenon, and disruptions big and small are etched in history and will likely repeat in the future. The aim is to get leaders in the headspace of crisis management. Although crises differ in complexity and impact, there are a few staples that must be adopted to get a better handle on any unexpected situation. Most commonly, crisis leadership teaches leaders to manage emotions, assemble emergency task forces to quell the spread of emergency, and to maximise technology and communication channels. 

In addition to crisis leadership workshops, it is important for business leaders (especially in SMEs) to develop a series of task-oriented action plans to deal with a variety of possible disruptions, including natural disasters, fraud, and economic crises.

4. Be inspiring

During times of crisis, people turn to their leaders to safely guide them through uncertainty. It is the job of leadership to place the interests of their people at the forefront of their crisis management. People want to place their trust in their leaders to reduce their risk exposure to the external forces causing internal dilemmas. Effective leaders must win the hearts and minds of their people as they facilitate each employee’s navigation through risk and change. The best way to do this is to earn their trust.

Leaders need to lead, but they also need to listen to their people. When employees feel like their voices are being heard, especially amid a crisis, their willingness to go above and beyond what is required to mitigate the negative effects of a disaster will be bolstered. No leader is an island, and the ability to adapt and overcome crises in all shapes and forms depends heavily on employee buy-in born from inspirational leadership.

5. Be adaptable

Adaptability is one of our core brand values. As leaders in the technology field, we know that those who anticipate disruptions take an early advantage in charting a new course to overcome obstacles, rather than trying old approaches to meet new challenges. We have learned to view these disruptions as new opportunities. With this mindset, we are able to adapt actively to change, rather than reactively. 

According to Harvard Business Review, the best leaders actively strive to continuously remain ahead of changing circumstances. Leaders won’t know everything at once, and the best ones easily admit this and put their trust in those who are better equipped to synthesise information. Adaptable leaders glean as much current information as possible from all areas of their business operations to get a clear indication of the effects of the disruption to expose new channels for change.

In order to remain adaptable to circumstances, leaders must prioritise both expenses and initiatives with an iron fist. What may have worked before the crisis hit is likely to be ineffective during it as the variables have completely changed. Great leaders adapt and pivot to new avenues to get things done as and when situations present themselves.  

Summary

The very nature of a crisis involves unpredictability and inability to plan or forecast. However, disruptions in business are omnipresent and it is the role of leaders to effectively lead during times of disruption and uncertainty. Leaders must utilise all key components of crisis management: communication, transparency, decisiveness, anticipation, and adaptability in order to gain complete buy-in from their entire workforce. Only when a business’s people are unified can they weather the storm with as little damage as possible.

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Elvire Jaspers
Author info
Elvire Jaspers
Elvire is WeAreBrain’s CEO. She has worked in the tech industry for many years, successfully running and selling her own start-up in 2017. With a big passion for sailing, she's very keen on conquering the seas (besides the tech space).
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