Leading through Crisis – April 2020

Our world changed in what seems like just a blink of an eye: when COVID-19 arrived in the United States, it instantaneously changed our social habits, our lifestyles, our economy, and our organizations.  Indeed, the impact is being felt by our businesses, our hospitals and senior care facilities, our schools, our nonprofit and governmental agencies.  As you read this, some organizations are completely shut down and just hope to be in a position to resume business soon; some have transitioned to virtual work-at-home settings; some have converted entire business models or have rapidly changed their products and services to address emerging needs.  But I would assert that all organizations have been impacted in profound ways.  So have all leaders, all professionals, really all people.

The road ahead will be long and challenging.  No one really knows what tomorrow will bring, so we could all stand to learn from each other in navigating these tough times.  In that spirit, last week PEN hosted a panel discussion: “Leading through (the COVID-19) Crisis.”  The discussion included six leaders from six very different sizes and types of organizations, representing all sectors and communities within our region – from Duluth to Rapid City.  We heard from a manufacturer who has laid off all of its production workforce, a health system that is faced with funding shortages but has to remain prepared on the front lines for this disease, two nonprofits (one of which has furloughed most of its 450 person team), a K12 school district (that has shifted to all on-line instruction), and a municipality.

In many ways, the conversation confirmed that we’re “all in this together” – every one of the six organizations is dealing with extraordinary change and significant challenges.  But in many other ways, the conversation was comforting, as each leader shared insights and suggestions that might be useful for other leaders as we all navigate the crisis.  As I mentioned during the discussion, no one really has the answers for how to manage this crisis, but the collective wisdom in this group could be helpful to us all in taking some steps forward.

The full recorded discussion is here, if you’re interested (download from DropBox to see full hour).  And here are some of the most notable insights worth sharing (plus a few of my own) – helpful for leaders at any level in any organization:

  • In navigating through crisis, keep focused on what’s most important. Keep true to your priorities, your “absolutes.”
  • While your tactics will change, keep focused on your mission and ultimate objectives during crisis.
  • In leading through crisis, agility is key: be comfortable (and capable) of making quick adjustments when your circumstances change.
  • In leading through crisis, you simply cannot overcommunicate. Keep the lines of communication open. In the absence of information, your team will fill in the gaps (and sometimes they assume the worst case).
  • In leading through crisis, data are essential: make your best, quickest decision based on facts.  And then use the data to see if it was the right decision, adjusting as necessary. It’s all about course corrections.
  • Having said that, time is of the essence: make quick decisions. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Keep moving forward.
  • In leading through crisis, it’s important to try to create order through the chaos. Break down problems into smaller components; take baby steps but take steps.
  • Leaders must balance the need for short-term, urgent decisions versus the long-term impact of those decisions on an organization’s mission and sustainability.  Try to balance the short- and longer-term.
  • During crisis, empowerment is more than a word on a poster: the difference between successfully navigating through challenges versus failing oftentimes comes down to allowing your best people to do what they do best.
  • During crisis, you need a mindset that’s both planful yet flexible. Don’t overreact to today’s developments, but rather keep one eye on the here-and-now and the other looking to the future.
  • During challenging times, it’s easy to make decisions in somewhat a reactionary mode.  But now – more than ever – decisions should be rooted in your mission, vision, and values.
  • During a crisis, while you’re focused on today, you must also consider tomorrow.
  • During a crisis, you must go slow to go fast: take a breath, weigh the data, choose the best path, and then accelerate through implementation.
  • Transparency throughout a crisis is critical to maintaining trust and to ensuring ethical behavior. Resist the urge to cut corners; hold your team accountable for the same.
  • Throughout a crisis, capture lessons learned.  There will be other crises – some similar, some very different.  But evaluating and improving your response to this crisis will no doubt better prepare you for the next one.
  • In times of crisis, you must continue to have a growth mindset: explore how to accomplish something rather than all the reasons why it can’t be accomplished.
  • As leaders, you need to intentionally connect with your people during times of crisis – be authentic, be honest, and listen – really listen.  Remember: your team is anxious. Don’t give them false hope, but do seek to understand their concerns and provide them space to share.
  • Actions speak much, much louder than words. Remember that people are watching – looking for clues.
  • Focus on victories, however small they may seem. Optimism is contagious (so is negativity, so choose wisely).
  • Be open to opportunities for innovation – new business models, new products and services, new processes or methods to better accomplish work and to add (new) value.  Don’t waste a good crisis!
  • Be open to new partnerships, but trust in proven relationships.
  • The answer to every challenge in this crisis is a process: consider what you need to accomplish and then design (or redesign) an approach to best getting there, given a new set of constraints and requirements.
  • Sometimes constraints will lead to innovative solutions and new approaches that are better than the original way of doing things. Be open to change and new solutions.
  • Strong leaders are comfortable in navigating through uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • The time to prepare for a crisis is not during the crisis. Have plans; consider scenarios; be ready.
  • The best way to build resilience is to go through hardship.  As painful as a crisis can be, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow – as leaders and as humans.
  • It’s easy to lead when times are good, but it’s during extraordinary challenges that extraordinary leaders are created.
  • Acknowledge your team’s range of emotions; show empathy; listen.
  • Recognize that your employees are people – with real families, real struggles. Treat them as a whole person – listen, empathize.
  • As leaders, recognize that employees are humans – they have a professional side and a personal side.  Recognize the real human side of this crisis, and appreciate that they are dealing with stress, anxiety, and concerns that transcend the business.
  • Lead with deliberate calm and bounded optimism.  Don’t minimize the situation, but give people hope and a positive vision for the future.
  • Weathering a long-term crisis requires endurance – the physical, mental, and emotional stamina to keep moving forward. This crisis may last a year or more, so as leaders, try to help set a pace with your teams to keep them from burning out.
  • This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint – don’t wear yourself out on the first lap, and don’t let your team wear themselves out either.
  • Crisis brings out the best and the worst in people.  As leaders, be empathetic – lead with heart.
  • As leaders, be authentic.  Feel free to show your vulnerability – your human side.
  • Leaders need to roll up sleeves and dig in.  When those “in the trenches” see their leaders working beside them, it creates a culture of engagement.
  • Take care of yourself.  Self care is not selfish.  You cannot take care of your team (or your customers, or your family) if you don’t take care of yourself.

I suppose each insight on its own has merit.  But collectively, I see three key themes:

  • During crisis, process is even more important: how you make decisions, how you listen to your customers and your people, how you make or deliver products/services, how you respond to ever-changing circumstances. In order to change and adapt (and maybe even improve or innovate) how things are done, you first must 1) remember your ultimate objective(s), and 2) understand how things were done in the first place.
  • During crisis, you must focus, reprioritize, and be comfortable with constant change.  Crisis requires adaptability, flexibility, agility – but also a full commitment to what’s truly most important and absolute.
  • During crisis, take care of yourself and your people as best you can (for more insights on taking care of yourself, see my column from last month).  After all, businesses – any organization, really – is all about people. There will be significant pain during this journey, but together, we can persevere.

As I closed the panel discussion, I’ll leave you with the same quote from Naomi Williams: “It is impossible to feel grateful and depressed in the same moment.”

As bad as things seem – and indeed, as bad as they might get – we all still have things for which we can be thankful.  With intentional gratitude, our thoughts can be filled more with hope, appreciation, and optimism than they are with negativity and despair.  Find the small miracles in every day. Have hope; have faith; press forward.

Stay healthy, everyone, and take care.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding leading through crisis?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit entrepreneur.com, New York Times, whyy.org