Crisis Leadership

Zen saying: “You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day…unless you’re busy, then you should sit for an hour.”

How does that resonate with you? Would you take that advice, or laugh at the novelty of the thought? Well as a leader during this crisis, you should take heed of the Zen saying.

What is Crisis Leadership?

Previously it would have been defined as a process or strategy to deal with a major unpredictable or negative event. However, McKinsey aptly redefined this definition for application to the coronavirus pandemic and recovery:


"What leaders need during a crisis is a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday's developments and help them to look ahead."

Crisis Leadership Behaviours

There are many elements behind being an effective leader during crisis and I am sure that you have been stretched when becoming aware of this. My advice, however, is to make sure that you have some space in your day to reflect on your own wellbeing and state of mind.

Having reviewed the plethora of information and articles on how to manage and lead during these times of crisis, several themes emerged. These themes can be summarised in the below headings:

  • Self-leadership
  • Resilience and Grit
  • Leading with empathy
  • Tackling the unknown
  • Leading teams remotely
  1. Self-Leadership

Daniel Goleman postulates “Exceptional leaders distinguish themselves because of superior self-leadership.”

If you are familiar with Goleman’s theory, then you know that self-leadership is the first aspect that you need to develop before you are able to manage yourself effectively. Only after self-leadership and management are in place, are you able to begin understanding others in order to manage your interactions with others more effectively.

Therefore, before you can be concerned about the welfare and effectiveness of your team or organisation, you must complete a check-in with yourself to be 100% certain that you, yourself are alright.

This being said, according to Yale’s University Professor, Cognitive Scientist and Director, Laurie R. Santos – the GI-Joe principle, which states that “knowing is half the battle” is a fallacy. You actually need to practice behaviour change, not just know the principles of what you should. Therefore, as a leader you need to examine your thoughts, feelings and behaviours to ensure that you can be effective as an individual and leader. Why? Because Crisis Leadership requires you to be strong, motivated and to provide direction to your followers.

Tip: To be an effective self-leader, you need to realise the importance of reflection. Reflect on your strengths and development areas, your personal values that influence your behaviour and emotional triggers that may lead you to derail. Make time to reflect on your day, and ask yourself what did I learn? What could I have done better? And what would I have changed in my behaviour or response to make it better?

2.Resilience and Grit

You will find yourself having to make sure that your team remains motivated, positive, focused and on-task during these times of panic. Hence Crisis Leadership involves developing your own resilience and grit – because you will encounter challenges, and situations will not be as easy to navigate as we expect.

Resilience is about developing the skills to bounce back despite encountering obstacles. Grit, according to the Dictionary is defined as having “courage and resolve; strength of character.”

If we think about resiliency as the “ability to meet adversity, setbacks and trauma and then recover from them in order to live life fully” Who is an example of this? I could name a few. As a leader, resiliency means having the ability to sustain your energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt to the needs of your team. Grit involves showing the courage to deal with all obstacles whether the outcome is positive or negative.

Tip: Prioritise time in your week to refuel by spending time on activities that bring you enjoyment, fulfilment and energy. It may be exercise, reading an inspiring book, learning something new, building something with your hands, or some retail therapy. Whatever it may be, it is vital to sustaining you when times get tough.

3. Leading with Empathy

As a leader during crisis, you also have to lead with empathy, because more so than ever, attention is being paid to mental health. According the World Health Organisation, the experience of fear has increased. Due to the pandemic. The fight or flight response is more of a daily occurrence. May it be because of the fear of contracting the virus, or the fear of the unknown disruption to our daily lives, in totality people are more fearful currently. This is not an excuse however. Despite all of us dealing with a lot of unexpected changes and unforeseeable limitations, employees still need to perform and this means that they need to rely on leaders to provide the support and vision of how we are all going to get through whilst still ensuring that the bottom line is still going.

Tip: Think about your employees and what you know about them, what signs or signals are they giving you? What do they need from you as a leader to establish a sense of stability?

4. Tackling the unknown

Crisis Leadership requires us to start developing our skills to tackle the unknown. Literature has spoken about us having to learn to deal with a D-VUCAD Workplace. These workplace characteristics are:

Volatile: The Environment demands that one reacts quickly to ongoing changes that are unpredictable and out of one’s control.

Uncertain: The environment requires one to take action without certainty.

Complex: The environment is dynamic, with many interdependencies.

Ambiguous: The environment is unfamiliar, outside of one’s expertise.

Diversity: cultural diversity, generation diversity, gender diversity

Disruption: radical changes in technology, products, services, and social transformations

Cultivating a ‘Learning Mindset’ to approach this situation as a challenge to overcome will stand you in good stead to tackle the New Normal.


Tip: Desire to keep learning – As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Seek opportunities to learn – both formally and informally – as it will provide you with the confidence and competence to tackle more D-VUCAD scenarios successfully.

5. Leading teams remotely

Learning to manage remotely is now a very hot topic and has increased the demand on leaders to acquire new competencies.

Adapting your management style to suit remote work is an essential skill in the world’s current climate. Working remotely often leads to teams feeling disconnected and communication becoming fractured. Managers now need to be more deliberate in their communication with their teams to ensure that everyone is on the same page. How often do you check in with your team to see how they are doing

Tips: Cameras on: Have ‘check-in’ meetings with your team twice a week. Switch your cameras on so that you can all see each other and gauge how everyone is doing. This will allow you as a manager to understand where more support may be needed and whether or not the team is on the same page about current operations.

One-on-one is key: Check in with your team members individually from time to time. There may be some issues they need to talk about but feel uncomfortable doing so in a group set up.

Open door policy: Because we are no longer all at the office, the term ‘open door policy’ has taken on a new meaning. However, it is important to let your team know that you are available to be contacted for any issues within working hours and that they should feel free to call you if they need to. This will increase trust and transparency, and help you keep on top of issues as and when they arise.

In conclusion

Self-leadership involves taking that time to align your mindset and build the energy to manage the other behaviours Crisis Leadership requires.

We at Orgro believe that “People Make it happen” and as a leader, in this crisis, you are the key to helping your teams through this. Once you are able to self-lead, your visibility and position will enable you to demonstrate behaviours that are effective at coping with a crisis and can also be modelled by others.

Let us support you on your Crisis Leadership developmental Journey and Sign-up for our 5 module course now. The course is complete with a Crisis Leadership workbook and consultations with our Industrial Psychologist and Coaches.

By Orgro
Katherine Roper
Industrial Psychologist / Senior Consultant

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