My Hard Lesson Learned in Leading Through Crisis_3x5 Leadership

Leading through crisis has certainly been the hot topic on leadership over the last five months since COVID hit the US. There is no shortage of new work addressing the challenges of and need to lead through crisis well; a simple internet search can offer hundreds of perspectives and ideas. It is an important topic to discuss, though. A crisis can be defined as a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point. A crisis can threaten the wellbeing of our people and mere existence of our organizations; crisis requires effective leadership.

While recognizing the importance of leading well through crisis, I initially chose not to write on the topic. I felt I had no relevant or fresh perspectives to offer on it. But then a friend asked if I would share some personal thoughts on the topic for his blog (below and here). While I was happy to share and humbled by the consideration, I did not feel passionate or qualified on the topic. To be honest, I ended up writing about what I call my “leadership philosophy”: how I intend to authentically lead regardless of circumstances or environment. I think I subconsciously did that to send the message that leaders need to remain authentic to themselves and committed to the organization as they were before the crisis; we don’t merely alter our leadership in response to a crisis.

However, I wrote that piece prior to actually having to lead through crisis in my own work context. While many people and organizations felt and had to react to the COVID crisis immediately back in March, I did not until June and July due to our organization’s mission at the time. But in finally having to lead through crisis myself, I discovered a harsh reality that I underestimated: it really is hard! Even after writing about how I intend to lead through crisis in my own authentic way, I found that it was so easy to toss that plan out the window. I became disappointed in how quickly I placed other things as priority over people, loving them, and engaging them.

So, I share my original piece that I wrote on leading through crisis below. I don’t offer it under the presumption that this is how you should lead through crisis. Instead, I offer it as a challenge to ensure that we, as leaders, remain intentional and committed to our own leadership philosophies even in a crisis. I truly believe that leadership is a people-centric business and that our people should always be a top priority. However, I feel that I failed at that recently; I prioritized the daily urgencies of the day over the enduring important things. This failure has triggered a considerable amount of personal reflection on how I can be more deliberate in my leadership, remain committed to my leader priorities, and be effective in leading and developing others. I hope that others can learn from my recent struggle.

Original piece shared on the Chambers Bay Institute blog below:

“Leadership is having people look at you and gain confidence seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.” ─── Tom Landry

I believe this quote from the famed football coach captures the essence of leading during crisis. It may not be any specific knowledge, skill, or other attribute that we bring to the team that is most valuable. Often, it may merely be our ability to communicate and instill needed energy, attitude, and perspective with our people. To do so, leaders need to emphasize three essential behaviors as they lead through crisis:

  • Lead with love: Never forget that leadership is a people business, even amidst the urgency of crisis. To be successful, teams require trust, innovation, and dynamic collaboration for timely problem-solving. These don’t just appear when we enter a crisis. Leaders must cultivate psychological safety, appreciation, and love within the team. Sometimes, loving and caring for your people during these extremely challenging times is the most important thing you can do.
  • Create high levels of engagement: Crisis stresses our time, attention, and capacity both on an individual level for leaders and at the collective level across the team. It can also disperse the team more over time and space. Maintaining connection and personal engagement with your people is crucial. Never underestimate the power of a simple text message, phone call, FaceTime call, or Zoom chat. It lets them know you’re thinking of them, value their efforts, and care about them. I like to say that leaders are never too important or too busy to show appreciation. This still applies through crisis. Routinely remain engaged and in-tune with your people.
  • Ensure clarity: Leaders communicate who we are, what we do, and why we do it is important. Leaders do this often through many different methods and platforms. During crisis specifically, leaders must ensure there is clarity across the team on what we are doing and are not doing to successfully navigate the challenging environment. Priorities and ways of doing business likely shift in crisis; our people need to understand that and know why.”

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  1. Sir, I thought that this article was very insightful. I too approached leading in the COVID environment with the idea that it wouldn’t be very different from a regular one. However, I quickly found that the crisis factors overrode some of my “people always” priorities. At many times throughout the last month, I’ve reflected on how planning factors became more urgent than the important parts of leadership. This article was able to articulate the difficulty of that situation, but I also agree that a crisis is when we need to affix ourselves to our leadership philosophy tighter than before.

    1. Jack, thanks for sharing! I’m glad it resonated. And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that feels this way. I appreciate your honesty and insight!

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