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Learning & Development Blog

How To Be An Effective Leader During A Crisis

by Emily Walters, guest author

If everything played out like a film, you’d know exactly what to do during a crisis. Whether it’s heading up the biggest whistleblower case of the century or handling a zombie outbreak like a pro, we’re made to think that leaders not only naturally rise during a crisis, but they do so flawlessly, with no training, experience, or even prior suggestion that they’d make a good leader. In many cases, it’s even highlighted that they’re a “non-leader” until crisis starts. That’s not how it works in the real world.

There's a big difference between being a leader, being an effective leader, and being a master leader. It’s kind of like being a father, a dad, and a “super dad” (or mom!). Anyone can be a father or a leader, but that doesn’t make them good at or dedicated to their role. It takes a lot of effort and trial and error to be a dad or dedicated leader. Finally, master leaders and “super dads” just don’t exist. Being an effective leader, just like being a good dad, takes a lifetime of experimentation. You’ll have bumps, you’ll fail, and there will be some days that are better than others. What makes an effective leader is the desire to truly see their employees and business thrive.

There’s bound to be crises to face as a leader. How will you handle them? Consider these strategies, and remember that with each event there’s a learning experience. You’ll always emerge more knowledgeable than before the kerfuffle.

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1. Prepare with a “crisis plan.”

Experts say that the vast majority of major security breaches (hacks) could have been prevented simply by following good standard safeguarding practices. Even the biggest viruses, like the HeartBleed virus, were easily preventable. You can often prevent a crisis from occurring by being aware and having a plan of action in place in case something does go awry. Think of your team and the business like a complicated health system. The longer you put off going to the dentist for what starts as a minor tooth ache, the more likely that pain will turn into something a lot more painful, serious, and expensive to address. Sit down with your team, talk about potential obstacles, and map out a crisis plan in advance. Revisit it regularly for modifications and additions.

2. Practice active listening.

This is a lot tougher than it sounds (no pun intended). Most of us think we’re “listening,” but we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk. Active listening is both an internal and external exercise. Use non-verbal cues, such as nodding, to show the speaker that you’re respecting what they have to say, but also truly focus on which of their words and their own non-verbal cues you’re picking up. Active listening is another skill that you can better develop over time with practice. Active listening, like a crisis plan, can often help prevent a crisis or keep it from getting out of control.

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3. Stop micromanaging.

Micromanaging is a common problem for new and seasoned leaders alike. It’s human nature to want to maintain control, and some micromanagers truly think they’re helping their team by having hands in every single pot. However, what you’re really saying is that you don’t trust anyone but yourself to get the job done. When a crisis strikes, suddenly nobody is prepared to act because they are so used to you micromanaging everything. Equip your team to be prepared in their roles during a crisis, just like you should be.

4. Model how you want your team to behave.

If the leader goes berserk during a crisis, unable to act or acting irrationally, that’s modeling to the team how you expect them to act. Stay calm, stay professional, and keep your cool while helping everyone follow the crisis plan you’ve mapped out. This doesn’t mean leaders should always know exactly what to do during a disaster. Learning how to say “I don’t know” is a powerful leadership tool. In some cases, you don’t necessarily need to pad it with a “but” at the end. Admitting your knowledge gaps lets your team know you’re human (and hopefully that you’re also open for suggestions).

5. Practice a triage approach.

Take a cue from the healthcare world and practice triaging a crises as it unfolds. You can, and should, take the same approach on a daily basis when it comes to tackling work and responsibilities. Take care of the most pressing item first or, if all items are equally pressing, consider which you can resolve the quickest and most easily. You won’t necessarily take care of everything in a single day, but you’ll get a great start on downsizing the situation. Your crisis plan can also include examples of triaging and a map of what’s likely the most important potential problems for your particular team or company.

6. Have a go-to team to back you up.

Again, there are no master leaders or super parents. Every effective leader builds a supportive team around them with dedicated roles to help better the entirety of the company. Make sure your go-to team knows what to do during a crisis and what their role is, and you can all easily reach one another. It’s a type of delegation, but one that’s often overlooked in the day-to-day operations of a company. Learning to delegate is learning to be a good leader. There’s also an element of being able to identify who your dream team is.

7. Always be learning. 

Embracing continuing education as a leader is critical. You don’t have to sign up for a certification course or an advanced degree, but you should always be seeking out ways to learn more for self-improvement. Remember that improving yourself improves your team and the company as a whole. Maybe it’s a Toastmasters class, a software class, or a workshop series on stress management. In some cases, the company might even pick up the tab! Lifelong learning doesn’t just help improve the business, but also improves you by keeping you sharp and up to date on the latest best practices.

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8. Know and correct your fight-or-flight tendencies.

It’s a natural defense mechanism that’s built into all of us, and everyone has different reactions based on the situation. However, if you know you tend to “fly” or freeze up during a crisis, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed as a leader. It does mean you could benefit from some cognitive restructuring that can help redirect your flight instinct into a fight. This won’t happen quickly, and you might still disappoint yourself in a tough situation. However, increasing self-efficacy and self-confidence through regular cognitive therapy practices can help you embrace your fight instinct when necessary. There are many ways to do this, from seeing a mental health expert to free and easy online tools.

9. Bring people together.

It’s a skill leaders need to work on in or out of a crisis, but difficult situations make it easier for people and teams to drift apart. Sometimes survival instincts kick in, and that can mean separating yourself from the herd in order to put yourself first. In business, this is often when we see colleagues throw each other under the bus or mysteriously disappear when the worst of the situation is playing out. Having the ability to bring people together is another skill that comes with practice, and it involves empathy, consistently building professional relationships with one another, and prioritizing team-building activities year-round.

10. Ask for help.

For a lot of leaders, this is one of the biggest tasks of all. Whether it’s asking for help from your team or from a higher-up, knowing when your plate is too full and asking someone to help you carry it can seem humbling, but it’s not. A good and effective leader knows when there’s too much for them to handle, and they don’t see asking for help as a weakness. You’re in a team, and that’s what all those other people are for! If you have someone, such as a mentor or manager, available to you, make use of them. It’s not noble to try to carry an entire crisis on your own and will likely make the problem worse.

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11. Know when to take a break.

Some crises involve fast and long action, like if there’s a security breach, and you’re in charge of plugging it. However, most don’t require the equivalent of locking a jury in a room until they reach a decision. Adrenaline from discovering the crisis can give you a lot of energy and clarity to start dismantling it right away, but the biggest crises take time. Understand your exhaustion cues and that you’re not going to be your sharpest if you push too hard (and neither will anyone on your team). Leaders know when to pause for both themselves and their team.

12. Record everything.

Adrenaline is fantastic for giving you instant energy to handle situations, but it’s not very good at nourishing memory. There’s a reason witnesses to a crime will often have very different versions of the story even just a few minutes after an incident occurs. Stress can give us false memories, and the same applies in a work crisis, just like witnesses to a crime. Your best defense is to record everything as it happens, and assign some of your go-to team members to do the same. This can be part of your crisis plan. Know and have readily available at all times your best tools for reporting, whether it’s a task app in your phone or a voice recorder.

13. Don’t take it personally.

Finally, here’s another biggie. Unless you really were wholly at fault for the crisis, try not to let it overpower you. It’s very likely that you weren’t the only person at fault, or even “guilty” at all. Internalizing work stress is a surefire way to increase a variety of diseases and disorders.

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An effective leader is a work in progress. Every day, you can take steps to increase your odds of succeeding the next time you and your team rally for battle.

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