Leading in a mega-crisis

Written by Alistair Gordon, 23 Apr 2020

FASTLEAD coaches Dominic Johnson, Darin Fox, and Alistair Gordon share some immediate thoughts about the things to do – and not do – when leading front line teams in a crisis.

Leadership principles are enduring. They come into a particular focus when a crisis turns up. The fire of ordeal – the crucible – reveals what we’re made of. Who could have predicted this sort of disruption – the precise severity and duration of which no one yet knows?

This is a time when leadership is especially important. Your people and your organisation need your leadership now – more than ever before. What are the critical leadership actions for us to focus on? Here’s our take:

1. Communicate transparently

We are in a crisis that has no clear end, changes daily, and impacts everyone. There are no simple answers, or a simple plan forward. In situations like this we may mistakenly believe there is nothing to communicate, because we don’t have answers for our team.

Transparent communication at a time like this is critical. That is, communication with honesty and vulnerability. It is best practice to communicate we don’t know what will happen, and that we are thinking about some options but are not sure which will work and which will be affected by new policy announcements.

No one is expecting you to have a clear plan – none of us have been here before. Exploring options, sharing ideas, and working as a team to understand what’s happening is healthy.

Be collaborative and collegiate. Have a discussion with your team about the best ways we can work together during this tough time.

Why leadership transparency matters. Transparency is vital to sustain trust. When people devolve into a survivalistic mentality – when the very real prospect of losing one’s job looms large in people’s minds – then trust tends to deteriorate.

When leaders engage with others authentically and vulnerably – sharing whatever information is known (adult to adult) then such behaviours tend to summon trust.

If leaders become secretive – or are perceived to be withholding information – then, in such a vacuum, people’s minds imagine the worst. If leaders treat their people like fragile children that need to be kept in the dark until the “adults” have decided what to do then the culture of mistrust could possibly undermine positive engagement.

We will, of course, at some point, find ourselves on the other side of this. If trust has been damaged then it could continue to undermine ongoing performance long after the crisis has passed. If trust has been sustained or even built then it could increase both resilience and ensure that recovery efforts are optimal.

2. Understand and focus on your sphere of control

When everything appears to be falling apart, its human nature sometimes to give up – to think there is nothing that I can do. But of course, this is where leadership kicks in – focusing on what we can manage and influence. We must be honest about what is outside our control as well.

Most team leaders are not policy makers – but we can focus on what we can control and then map out a direction and a sense of purpose within that sphere of control. We can influence access to information and decisions and your team’s understanding of options. We can influence their mental wellbeing by leading through service, and remain calm in the face of the firestorm.

3. Look after yourself

You’ll not be much use to your team if you are not looking after yourself properly. In moments like this there is a huge benefit in talking to others who are in a similar situation as you. Share the problem and the load. Ongoing stress and fear can have a long-term effect on our minds and bodies, so it incredibly important to counteract this. Get lots of sleep, focus on eating healthy, find ways to exercise and look for the positive.

As we are seeing already, these types of crises can bring both the best and worst out of people. Amongst all the negative news, remember to look out for positive acts of kindness between people.

4. Understand there are no right answers – change your language

This isn’t business as usual, and no one has had to deal with a complete shutdown of services on this scale before. So, it is foolish to think that we, or anyone else, has all the right answers. Because there are no right answers, and no one expects us to have them, this gives us permission to really practice our inclusion and coaching skills.

Often, it’s the sense of powerlessness which really disables people. Enlightened leaders engage their people in a frank analysis of the current situation and some exploration of the various scenarios that might play out – and what team members might do in order to best prepare for each possible scenario. At least then, people can face the brutal facts with a sense of agency.

Involve the team in thinking creatively about what you could do that might work and get out of the mindset of choosing options that need to be right. In a crisis, it is more important to act fast than it is spend time looking for the right decision. That leads to no action whatsoever.

In our first few days we have found it extraordinary some of the great ideas that the team has come up with when we use “could” and “might”.

These are the words of ambiguous times.

5. Make a plan that you are prepared to change at a moment’s notice

The trick to encouraging your team to be proactive, to move forward, to have a sense of engagement and making a difference – is shaping a plan. You need to act fast so it might well be a plan that needs to change, but that’s fine. Be clear with your team that this is a plan until new situations and policies mean we have to flex again.

As an example, many office-based organisations are being asked to work from home. While the wider organisation is making policy, front line leaders can make a plan for their team.

Let’s have daily huddles. Let’s agree to chat on the phone with each other once a day rather than just use email or chat. Let’s make sure we are being social even while we are distant. Share and discuss ideas for how to do that.

Give your team a chance to shape the way they move forward. Give your team a chance to shape at least part of their own destiny.

6. Help your team maintain perspective

As terrible as this crisis is, it really isn’t the end of the world, and we will get through it. Everyone is working to minimise deaths, and everyone should be working to minimise the disruption to the economy, jobs, livelihoods and so on. The gloom merchants will be in full cry because that’s how they get attention.

We don’t have to listen only to the gloom merchants. There are positive influencers out there who we can listen to as well. Just because the news cycle is 24x7, doesn’t mean we need to listen to it 24x7. Getting a comprehensive update once a day is probably ample for most of us.

Employment will return, the community will begin to function again in a more regular fashion. The world will probably change, and we can think about that and how that changes our place and contribution.

Making sure your team members are not just focusing on the negative is an important role as team leaders we can play in helping the mental health of our team members. And make sure we sign up someone to do the same for us.

7. Ask yourself and your team how they can serve.

What do our stakeholders need from us right now? How could we help provide? Importantly, how can we bring out the best in ourselves and our team, in such difficult circumstances?

Tap into different ideas and views from your team, explore different perspectives, identify solutions and opportunities to be of help and to serve.

This is both the right thing to do, and keeps your team engaged, and will be positively remembers when circumstances calm down and the country begins its recovery.

At the same time, ask yourself the same questions – how can you serve your team?

8. Try and keep the culture positive.

This may be the ultimate leadership challenge but maintaining a positive culture is definitely part of our role as front line leaders. Our team is a microcosm, and while everything else around the team might appear to be falling apart, you can build a strong supportive culture inside the team – even if you are working virtually.

Watch out for self-serving behaviours and call them out individually and privately. Call out great behaviours positively and publicly. Watch out for the blame game emerging – try and nip it in the bud. Don’t let poor culture become the next virus to infect us.

Model how to handle uncertainty with calmness, communication, and collective spirit.

9. Make active listening your go to leadership technique

Telling people everything will be all right might seem like a great idea, but it’s difficult to maintain credibility with your team when – let’s be honest – everything might not be alright.

And how do you know anyway? The critical thing everyone needs from everyone else is the ability to listen and empathise and ask questions so we are understanding where all of our people are coming from, and what is their mental state. As team leaders we have a high level of pastoral care responsibility for our team. And ourselves.

10. As difficult as it might seem, start planning for the recovery, immediately

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel but sometimes we don’t know how long tunnel will be. So, it can be hard to keep teams positive. At some stage in our future there will be a recovery. How can you and your team best position themselves – both individually, as a team, and as a business unit – to be ready to quickly ramp up when the recovery appears?

How might customers or stakeholders want to be dealt with differently? Do we have these skills? Can we learn new skills during this hiatus that either help us exceed customer expectations when the recovery arrives?

If this job does not continue, how might we provide individuals with more training and self-help to be well positioned to land the right job when the recovery appears?

As pragmatic as this is, it also helps people focus on “what comes after” and that is a generator of hope. For us, by the way, as well as our teams.

In the coming days we’ll publish further advice to the Fastlead alumni. Join our newsletter be ensure you receive notification.

Coming up:

  • Leading virtually. How to maintain the engagement, productivity and social interaction of your team while working remotely

  • The ultimate learning experience. How the shutdown can help you and your team learn-up