How to Lead during Crisis

by Melanie Parish

As a leader, during COVID-19 (or any crisis) it can be hard to find one’s feet and to feel confident in one’s path. It’s common to feel inadequate, unsure and out of one’s depth. That is to be expected. This is leadership like we have never seen before. So many businesses are closed or trying to find new ways of doing things. I believe almost every organization feels like a startup right now. Uncertain times need new kinds of leadership. We don’t have the answers, only questions, and still we are asked to be leaders. Being experimental in one’s leadership approach will help in trying things, learning from them, and figuring out the next experiment.

These tips will help leaders find their new center:

You are not responsible. It should go without saying, but business leaders should not feel their company’s problems are their fault. This is a global challenge that doesn’t have clear answers. Team members and other employees may want their leader to have answers, but that may not be possible. They will want certainty about their jobs, their income and their lives. Their leaders can’t promise them the future. What they can – and should – do is encourage them to do their job today and let them know their leaders have compassion but cannot be the answer to their future. Leaders need to gIve up being an all-knowing leader and be human. They should practice compassion and be collaborative to help their team make sense of the crazy.

Get bad news out of the way fast. If a leader has lay-offs and reorgs to do, it’s best to do them quickly. Leaders should make a plan — even if it is a bad plan — and clear this from their “to do” list. They will be a better leader with clarity. Kudos to those who can be compassionate while doing it. There are some businesses that will not survive this. Leaders must not hide their head in the sand like an ostrich, but rather embrace information and communication even if it is bad news. It’s important to work on being a good leader in bad times. Leaders should figure out what being a good leader means to them, individually. Kindness goes along way when delivering bad news.

Think about timeline. What is important one week from now? What is important one month from now? What is important one year from now? Some organizations need to be extending their timeline (How will we emerge from this crisis?) while others are busy changing to meet day-to-day needs (What do our clients need today?). Leaders should make sure to orient their thinking daily and consider multiple time frames. Leaders should make time to consider their leadership path before facing a day of decision-making and are faced with the feelings and challenges of others. Each leader needs to find his or her own true north as a leader.

Be kind and firm. Team members may be spinning and scared. Leaders should be empathetic and then ask them to get back to their jobs and produce good work. Having meaningful work is a privilege in these times, and leaders can ask them to be achievers right now, today. Leaders can deliver groundedness and purpose as long as they are working. There can be compassion for the challenges they face (kids at home, new environment, etc.) but leaders should not let them off the hook. They are being paid to provide work. The leader’s insistence on them delivering work is part of the work of leadership right now.

Practice extreme self-care. Each person is his or her own strongest asset. Leaders should experiment to strengthen their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Reach for the salad and smoothies instead of the martinis and chocolate cake. Exercise. Sleep. Meditate, perhaps. Journal or sit and think. Pause. Ask for help and love from friends. Schedule a virtual happy hour with friends or colleagues. Try and go deeper than ever before with self-care. People have never needed to care for themselves as they do today. Experiment with giving yourself what you need.

The message is, “You will get through this. You will learn from this. You will do your best and you will do your worst in this. As an experimental leader it is important that you stay engaged in the struggle of leadership. Try and fail and dust yourself off.” Each person needs to figure out the change he or she wants to see and what the barriers are; figure out an experiment; collect data; figure out what was just learned; ask, “What is my next experiment?”; then go experiment again.
Melanie Parish is a public speaker, author, and Master Coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations, and brand development, Parish has consulted and coached organizations that range from the Fortune 50 to IT startups. She is the author of The Experimental Leader: Be A New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators.

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