Leadership in a crisis requires a different emphasis to retain the trust and motivation of team members. As everyone within the team collectively deals with rolling waves of challenges that impact personal and professional lives the leader needs to be a beacon of light and clarity.

The McKinsey authors commence this article by pointing out that leadership is most important when people face significant objective threats and that the usual ways of working are no longer possible leading to stress, anxiety and confusion.

During times of disaster (natural disasters such earthquakes, storms and pandemics or financial disasters such as the GFC) there is always a significant impact on people creating economic hardship. A catastrophe happens when people impacted “freeze up and freak out” losing the trust and faith in leaders, rules and social norms.

A core tenant of leadership in a crisis is to provide cultural and psychological protection for employees. This can be achieved by holding oneself fully accountable for:

  • personal decisions
  • the well being of the team members
  • the performance of the organisation.

Leaders also need to demonstrated compassion through their words and deeds, demonstrating understanding of the effect on those impacted. Skilled leaders help their team sustain hope by building flexible cultures that empower employees to be their best selves and celebrates their individuality.

“using compassionate words and deeds to dampen the damage inflicted by the crisis at hand and to conserve, fuel, and direct the willpower and energy of the people you depend on and who depend on you.”

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Personal Accountability

Leadership is about making difficult decisions and during a crisis this brought even more into focus with critical choices that may be the difference of enabling the organisation to survive through short term and grow in the longer term.

Leaders who delay implementing the difficult and making painful decisions impact everybody. Decisions such as modifying the strategy, cost cutting, layoffs or site closures all have an associated cost and benefit that will directly affect the organisations cash flow.

Just making the decisions is no where near enough, you must as the leader frame the decisions and implement them in a way that creates hope and guidance for the team.

No Excuses – good leaders know its irrational to devote energy to the past, they must focus on what is known now and how it can help protect the people and drive the organisations performance.

The buck stops here – being a leader means you often get more blame and more credit than you deserve. Smart leaders use this to instil greater confidence in the team, it creates a sense of them being in control and taking action to deal with the current situation.

Caring and Compassion

Connecting with the team with empathy is critical as leaders demonstrate that they care and that they understand the harm and distress the crisis has caused expressing authentic compassion.

Slow down to speed up – everyone processes bad news in a different way. Experienced leaders recognise that teams need time to understand the announcement to process the emotions and to consider the personal impact on them.

They know that, to enable people to move forward together, it is sometimes best to slow down, seek advice, and do the “emotion work” required to get everyone on the same page.

Principles to lead by – Authentic caring leaders are trusted by their teams, as a result the messages that they deliver are more likely to be accepted and implemented even when the individuals disagree with the decisions.

Leaders who care listen, engage, express sadness, concern and make personal symbolic comforting actions. The recognise the importance of making the tough and distressing decisions in the most humane way possible. Three principles PREDICTION, UNDERSTANDING and CONTROL can help the leader manage the team stress.

PREDICTION – On when there is and is not any impact – the potential of a bad thing to happen or not. Leaders can be clear communicating periods when they will not be making changes to provide some certainty and confidence. Broadly messaging that while changes may be necessary in the future an embargo on those changes can provide some confidence and certainty until a specified date.

UNDERSTANDING – Providing explanations of why a decision was made is critical for employees to achieve closure. People have a burning need to understand the rationale especially if the outcome is distressing. If the understanding is not quick, false narratives are invented and spread rapidly – this can be very hard to rectify.

CONTROL – when individuals believe that they have a level of control and that their actions can still make positive change, they become more resilient and positive about the situation.

Sustaining Hope

The biggest lessons from this crisis is how leaders have helped team members transform how they work while continuing to motivate them to be their best selves.

Leaders who demonstrate authentic empathy and work place flexibility will help organisation transition through the crisis helping team members to do the right thing, remain engaged and positive about the future.

“Leaders who take personal accountability, who express compassion, and who create conditions that give employees as much prediction, understanding, and control as possible help move them from a room called fear to a room called hope.”

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership in a crisis requires personal accountability, caring, compassion and sustaining hope.
  • The strongest leaders are empathetic and recognise that once the decisions are made their role is communicate them in a way that minimises the collateral damage and sustains (sometimes rebuilds) the culture and unity of the team.
Published by McKinsey Quarterly
From a room called fear to a room called hope: A leadership agenda for troubled times
By Hayagreeva Rao and Robert Sutton
Published: 9th July 2020


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