How to Become a Better Leader Through a Crisis

Successful crisis leadership requires both emotional intelligence and a willingness to place yourself in service both to your team and the organization, in addition to agile decision-making and quick thinking.

A crisis isn’t just an opportunity to prove your mettle, though. Challenging circumstances can help you actively improve your leadership skills. If you’re uncertain about your leadership capabilities, or simply want to become a better leader for your company, consider the following tips to think more proactively about what that means, build on existing strengths and help correct any leadership shortcomings.

1. Know what being a great leader means

What specific qualities and traits do strong leaders demonstrate in times of crisis? To put another way, how do you want your team members and employees to describe your leadership style once the crisis has passed?

One key trait to shoot for is “reassuring.” Most people prefer leaders to project strong, calm confidence during rocky periods. They want to have faith in your assessments, and they want that assessment to be hopeful.

Yet too much optimism isn’t necessarily a good thing in a leader during a crisis, either. Positivity must be tempered with reality. If your workers feel like your projections are too rosy, they may lose faith in your leadership.

2. Prioritize your people

Make sure you put the needs of your team members and your customers first. Address their evolving needs and fears, and make sure they feel safe and welcome in your business, whether they’re back in the office or a brick-and-mortar store, or working remotely from home.

By that same token, resolve up front to remain flexible and forgiving when it comes to things like maintaining certain hours, working a full-time week, or needing some flexibility to address family needs, such as helping the kids with remote learning or taking care of sick family members. Extending a little grace can go a long way towards making others feel safe and increasing their sense of loyalty to your business.

3. Model healthy responses

One of the best ways to help your team deal with added stress is to model healthy adaptive and coping responses yourself. This means, at a minimum, taking those self-care actions that are required to maintain a healthy body and mind. These include adequate sleep, good nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and recreation or play. Find safe ways to socialize and seek social support from friends and loved ones.

Beyond the basics, fight the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues by getting help yourself when needed. Normalize the practice of seeking counseling or therapy when warranted. Recognize where you’re struggling specifically and find new strategies for coping with those stressors. That’s the best way to encourage your employees to do the same.

4. Evaluate and modify your business goals

A crisis means both opportunity and change. A strong business leader learns how to reevaluate business goals in light of the current reality. Some things may have to be put off or even let go of altogether. However, new opportunities may also present themselves as a result of a crisis. An agile leader learns how to pivot quickly.

To develop your flexibility and responsiveness, practice evaluating choices quickly from various stakeholder perspectives. Think about what’s best for your business, your employees, yourself, your investors, your customers and others.

5. Communicate with transparency

Share factual information with employees and other stakeholders in a forthright manner. Maintain empathy and compassion in all of your discussions and official communications, but make sure you’re being transparent about the situation. Factual information reassures, comforts and supports people as they move forward and make choices.

Choose in-person communications whenever possible. From words, to tone, to facial expressions, face-to-face conversations make it easier for all parties involved to understand each other. If that’s not possible, then choose the medium that works best for the situation, but make sure you maintain clarity throughout. Close out by summarizing the substance of your conversation in order to reinforce the message and key takeaways.

6. Observe without controlling

Learn to see and really notice the ways in which people around you are responding to stress without immediately reacting to it.

This is often much easier said than done. People who have been operating under stressful conditions sometimes tend to imagine worst-case scenarios all too easily. This is known as “catastrophizing,” and if it isn’t controlled, it can lead to burnout and worse.

Don’t try to talk the person down. It might come across as a dismissal or minimization of their understandable fears and concerns. Practice slowing down and taking in information, rather than reacting too quickly. Ask open-ended questions to help the other person figure out exactly what’s causing their fears. Then you can help them identify solutions, while simultaneously modeling a calm equanimity throughout the conversation.

Keep moving forward

Crisis and challenge can serve as a classroom and real-life lab in which your leadership skills are honed and strengthened. Focus on making small improvements and consistently practicing new skills so you can best serve your business and its customers.


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