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Crises don’t always follow the script. And, when they don’t, it can be hard to know what to do next. In these moments, it’s critical that leaders step up and take charge. But leading in a crisis is not always what you think it is. The thing about crises is that they have a way of throwing us off balance and upending our lives. And yet, in the midst of all this chaos, we are often looked upon to lead. Whether we are leading our families, our companies or our communities, crisis demands leadership like nothing else can.
Leaders are having to lead through extraordinary times, the pandemic, supply chain issues and its effect on the already-unstable economy further made worse by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. These are crises that will put pressure on any leader and this demand for capable and trustworthy leaders has never been more apparent. Here are three things to keep in mind when leading a crisis situation.
1. Clear and credible communication
Communicating clearly and credibly remains the number one trait a great leader needs and even more so in a time of crisis. Events of the magnitude we’re experiencing globally are without a doubt creating apprehension and concern and its important leaders acknowledge and address the concerns of their employees with utmost sincerity.
According to findings of a study by the International Journal of Productivity and Quality Management, employers should “engage more openly with their staff and drop the jargon to improve communication and allow feedback” in times of uncertainty. The study also said leaders who are honest about a company’s performance, are willing to share bad news and admit when they’ve made a mistake create an atmosphere of trust in a time where trust and stability can be hard to see.
Employees turn to leadership in a time of crisis; therefore, clear messaging and delivery are critical to avoid unintended chaos. Employees in the last two years have had to grapple with information from all sources credible or not, so it’s important that leaders know that clarifying and communicating effectively is what employees want. Employees are watching how their leadership acts and most importantly are talking to friends and colleagues in other organizations and this eventually plays a big role when it comes to employee retention. From the mundane to the most talked-about HR policies on everyone’s mind returning to the office full-time or allowing a hybrid model or working fully remote, all of these decisions require clear and timely communication. With the added anxiety of new variants, child care, and now adding the conflict in Europe this can all get overwhelming to the most even-keeled person.
2. Be decisive
Another trait of leading in a crisis is to be decisive. Indecisiveness creates confusion with the mixed signals. The current corporate measures several organizations have had to make on pulling out of Russia or messaging showing solidarity with Ukraine are clear examples of a time when a leader needs to be clear and unambiguous on where they stand. Their position on matters such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict unavoidably means it’s the entire organization‘s position, whether employees agree or not. Being decisive also includes making such decisions in a timely manner as that can only be misconstrued as being doubtful.
Despite coming under fire, several organizations have not stopped operations amidst the threat of boycotts and in the case of Nestlé being accused by the Ukrainian Prime Minister of “killing defenseless children and mothers,” Nestlé leadership has chosen to remain and continue to do business in Russia. Politics aside, this is an important trait a leader in crisis needs to possess as information and pressure will come from all sectors, and a leader taking a position deemed unpopular will need the backbone to stick to their decision without caving in.
3. Show empathy
It’s important in a time of crisis such as what we’ve experienced globally over the last 24 months, that employees know that they can be heard. A good leader is also a good listener. A time to know your employees is before a crisis occurs, so a leader that has shown they care prior and at least to their immediate direct reports can get their buy-in in a time of crisis because that foundational work has been done and it’s authentic. A leader should have a door’s always open policy so that employees know that they can genuinely discuss any fears or concerns without fear of being dismissed. The current unstable economic and geopolitical climate has led to many anxious employees.
According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, employees were better able to cope with their anxiety and fears when their leader exhibited servant leadership. Servant leaders prioritize the needs of their employees, empower them and show more understanding of employees’ anxieties in times of crisis.
Crisis leadership is not about being a hero. It’s not about taking charge and barking orders. True crisis leadership is about stepping up in moments of chaos and uncertainty, and doing what’s best for your team and your organization. It’s about being calm under pressure and making decisions that will keep your team moving forward.
Related: 4 Principles of Servant Leadership