Leadership in a Time of Crisis

April 1, 2020
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Author: Keith Walters

Keith Walters In my previous article, I noted that leadership is a behavior, not just a set of processes. For example, in a time of crisis, the process calls for communication – with employees, customers, partners, and all other stakeholders. But strong leadership in a crisis is not about communicating, nor is it necessarily about WHAT is communicated. The behavior is about HOW things are communicated.

Years ago, I attended a leadership workshop led by a Broadway acting coach, still vivid in my mind today. As the acting coach addressed the CEOs in attendance, his basic message was: “You are in a leadership role. You must act that role. Everyone is looking at you and reacting to your cues. And, the vast majority of your cues are non-verbal, many of which you are not even aware of.” He went on to say, “From the moment you get out of your car in the parking garage until the moment you return to it, you are acting the role of CEO, the role of a leader. You must play that role well.”

Many leaders work the known processes of what a leadership role requires, but do they embrace the role? Can they embrace the role? Do they play that role well?

A crisis forces leaders to rise above challenges and be decisive.

Why it Matters Now

Today, we find our country and world with a need for real leaders. Leadership in a crisis is like leadership at any other time; however, the crisis serves to accentuate who is a true Leader (with a capital L). Times of stress expose our true selves, our true interpersonal skills and our shortcomings. They reveal our core. And, strong leadership in a time of crisis reflects the real essence of leadership.

Purpose, Decision-Making and Risk-Taking

Those that embrace a leadership role act with purpose. They realize the impact their actions (the way they act) have on others. They define the desired impact, and then they act to achieve that impact. Simply stated, they act with purpose. Those that do this effectively are Leaders! It’s not about the motions or the processes; it’s about getting people’s buy-in and ultimately effecting change and transformation.

Quote from Winston Churchill

Critically important to great leadership is decision-making. A leader will gather feedback, but then the focus is on leading, not consensus. The best decision is the right decision. The second-best decision is the wrong decision. The worst decision is indecision. Set your vision with expectations, ensure team members clearly understand their roles, and provide the right resources to perform their duties with exacting precision.

Hand-in-hand with making a decision is the willingness to weigh and take risks. Avoidance of risk is not a core leadership skill. People in true leadership roles will have to make decisions that involve risk. And, they will have to make choices along the entire spectrum of risk; a spectrum that may run from a small financial cost to a loss of life. We often look at great military leaders as an excellent example of this point. At some point, those leaders likely had to make a decision that risked sending people to their deaths. If those in a leadership role don’t have the ability and willingness to make a decision along the entire spectrum of risk, they lack some of the core elements required to lead during a time of crisis. Grasping this fact, however uncomfortable, is a genuine growth opportunity for new leaders.

The Balancing Act

Leadership balances threats and opportunities. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to focus solely on the threats. Recognition of and preparation for threats is table stakes. However, the dynamics of a crisis usually create the stage for opportunities – often significant opportunities. A leader in a crisis will be open to, press for, and evaluate heretofore unthinkable pivots to create opportunities.

Achieving buy-in and effecting change and transformation are at the core of leadership. As a leader, know what you want your stakeholders to embrace and accept and what change or outcome you require. A leader who is mentally "sheltering in place" or projecting fear or doom and gloom will get buy-in into that setting. Strong leadership in a crisis is about being seen more than usual and projecting sureness and certainty. Even if guarded, project an image of reassurance and confidence.

Effective leadership in a crisis is about focusing on the core elements of leadership.

During a crisis, you do not necessarily lead with a predefined response plan but draw on behaviors that guide the mindsets and actions of those you are leading, finding opportunities to help drive the entire organization forward. Once the crisis has passed, your leadership behaviors offer an outlook that can have a powerful effect on your employees and stakeholders and inspire support for the organization’s recovery.

Keith Walters is a member of ThinkWhy’s Executive Advisory Board and the managing principal of Walters Development Group, a business advisory firm focused on accelerating growth companies toward their vision and steering them toward strong cultural ideals.