How to Be a Leader During a Crisis

Whether you're leading a team, family, community, or just yourself, leadership is complicated in a moment of crisis. These simple strategies can help you support yourself and those relying on you.

Rachel Cooke
4-minute read
Episode #593
The Quick And Dirty

Here are some strategies that will help you lead others through a crisis while you're managing your own way through it as well.

  1. Start by caring for you
  2. Be transparent
  3. Prioritize ruthlessly
  4. Check in regularly
  5. Invite everyone to define boundaries

Recently, I hosted a Facebook Live to field questions and offer tips on how to navigate work during the Coronavirus. An audience member asked this question:

My team looks to me for leadership, but right now I'm as freaked out as they are. How can I be a source of calm and support for them in a crisis?

The person who asked this question is in good company. I’ve had friends, clients, and even one husband inquiring about the same. So let’s talk about it. How do you lead a team through a crisis when you're battling the very same crisis?

And please note, whoever you are, I’m talking to you. Because whether it’s your team, your family, your community, or yourself, every one of us is leading someone right now.

Start by caring for you

Daniel Goleman, the man who first coined the term “Emotional Intelligence,” recently published an article highlighting the importance of the emotional state of leaders right now. When we allow our minds to get wound up in fear or anxiety, we become less effective at taking in information or making sound decisions. Goleman says:

The fundamental step every leader needs to take now enables him or her to manage their own emotional state. That means changing your relationship to your feelings—recognizing them rather than just being pushed around by them. And once you know what you are feeling—particularly if it’s fear, anxiety or worry—the next step comes down to managing those feelings.

Don’t think of this is a nice-to-do when things slow down. Recognize managing your emotional state as an essential step in readying yourself to be the person your team, family, or community needs you to be right now.

When you're anxious and afraid, it can be hard to think clearly, let alone get work done.  See episode 591 on managing anxiety at work for some clear and tangible advice.

Be transparent

Being a leader doesn't mean being a superhero. Regardless of where you sit on an organization chart, you’re navigating your way through this crisis. Whether you live alone or have children or elders or a partner relying on you, you need time, space, and grace to find your way through this uncertain moment.

So don’t try to hide that from your team. Let them know you’re here for them—you want to offer support, comfort, connection, whatever they need from you. But you also ask for their understanding in return, and ask them to recognize that you’re finding your own way.

You need time, space, and grace to find your way through this uncertain moment.

In being transparent, you show the care they need to experience while also letting them know you may not be immediately responsive. If they send you a note and don’t hear back within a day or two, assure them you’re likely distracted, not ignoring them, and they should feel safe in nudging or reminding you.

Ask for their patience and promise them the same. We’re all in this together.

Prioritize ruthlessly

Prioritizing always matters, but often we pay it lip service and lean right back into our endless to-do lists.

Today we have no choice. In this moment of limited attention and resources, prioritizing ruthlessly has never been more essential.

So have a virtual gathering with your team. Invite everyone to bring a list of everything they were working on before the pandemic. Pose some key questions to help determine which of their to-do’s should become either to-don’ts or to-do-laters. Some relevant questions might include:

  • Does this work directly support an immediate revenue stream?
  • Would a customer feel the pain if we shut down or postponed this work?
  • Will we see the benefit of this project in the next three months?
  • Has the need or appetite for this work shifted?
  • Are we able to do this work justice in our current way of operating?

These are some thought-starters. The questions are yours to design. But the outcome should be much shorter lists of things that are relevant, impactful, and doable in the here and now.

Check in regularly

One of the greatest signs of leadership during a moment of crisis is presence. Just showing up for your team—collectively and one-on-one—can yield immeasurable value and impact.

Be in touch with them regularly. Ensure they have critical information and updates as you have them. But most importantly, just check in. Show up not as the expert or the solver of problems or bringer of ideas, just an empathetic set of ears.

Do they need to scream? Vent? Cry? Talk about the latest episode of Tiger King just to remember what a bit of normalcy tastes like? Whatever they need you to be, just show up and be that for them right now, to the extent that you can.

Invite everyone to define their own boundaries

With work, home, school, family, colleagues all blending together right now, everyone needs to be setting meaningful boundaries. Our needs are both personal and individual. So how do you know what each team member needs? You ask.

You may have some team members who are overwhelmed right now with anxiety, demands being placed on them by family members, or responsibilities within a community. And such members may only be able to give you 40-50 percent of their usual focus or capacity.

On the flip side, you might also have team members who find work comforting, nourishing, or a healthy distraction from constant news updates. These members might want to be working now more than ever, ready to give 120 percent. 

Without making demands or pressuring employees to share details of their current personal experience, invite each team member to give you an honest assessment of what their capacity looks like right now.

From there, the things you can do include:

  • Being as respectful as you can of their current situation
  • Helping people take things off their plates or find more efficient ways to get things done
  • Connecting your team members to each other so they can support and collaborate with each other. If you can match up someone at 40 percent capacity with someone craving a 120 percent workload, you’ll be winning all around.

So, whether you’re currently in a position of leading a team, or you’re leading a family or part of a community through this moment of uncertainty, or even just leading yourself, I hope you've gleaned some useful ideas today. 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.