How to Be the Leader Your Company Needs When Times Are Tough

Leadership in a time of crisis


Jeff Livingston

3 years ago | 6 min read

It’s the fourth quarter. The score is tied with just enough time for one more play. In a Hollywood movie, the team calls a time out. The coach gives an inspirational “let’s come together” speech. The team, united in purpose, marches onto the field and wins the game.

Real-life is different. There is no Rudy and Friday Night Lights Coach Taylor is not coming to the rescue. Under pressure, most teams just rip each other’s throats out.

Leaders serve as the Hollywood coach, bringing the team together and inspiring action. In a crisis, corporate leaders often feel “alone on the island.” But at the end of the game, it is the team that posts the victory or defeat.

The Coronavirus pandemic ravaged the world’s economy. Leaders were suddenly thrust into crisis management as every sector in all industries felt the COVID-19 fallout. Few companies were immune from the viral effects.

COVID-19 is not the first, nor will it be the last crisis our companies will face. To increase the odds of guiding our teams through future threats, we must improve and evaluate our leadership skills.

In crisis management responsibility falls on leaders' shoulders. Our families, partners, and employees’ futures depend on the decisions we make. We must balance the company’s acute needs while keeping our attention on the long-term vision.

In times of crisis, leaders lead.

Leaders do not let fear win. They rise to the occasion and accept the challenge to take bold steps and overcome obstacles. Companies survive catastrophic threats when leaders set the tone, create the vision, and communicate the plan.

During a crisis, the mission is simple: organize, prioritize, plan, and execute.

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

Prepare for self-doubt

During a crisis, you will ask yourself if you are the right leader for the task. The difficult decisions to ensure a company’s survival do not come without personal cost.

Self-doubt is normal. The inevitable imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. We must acknowledge our humanity and give ourselves emotional space. An unexpected crisis, market shift, or a global pandemic represents a form of loss.

When we experience a loss, we go through the five stages of grief. They are the framework to help us get a grip on our emotions. Until we reach the acceptance stage, we will not be able to see the pathway forward.

The stages are:

  • Denial: This can not be happening to our company.
  • Anger: How did this happen?
  • Bargaining: Things won’t be so bad. Maybe we can just….
  • Depression: There is no way we will ever make it through.
  • Acceptance: Let’s find a way through it.

To move forward, the management team must pull it together quickly. During a crisis, the grieving process must be expedited.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Prepare for the incoming fire

Leadership will be tested.

Physically, mentally and emotionally, leaders will be pushed to new limits. All organizations have strengths and weaknesses. Any preexisting organizational flaws will not just be exposed; they will be magnified.

Recognize the vulnerabilities as fast as possible to pivot and adjust. Crisis management involves having the right players on the field and in the right positions. The faster we identify our potential exposure, the more rapid the response to implement effective solutions.

Leadership will be questioned.

Crisis brings out the critics as people inevitably and predictably look to place blame and find the culprits. But a crisis is no time for corporate politics. Infighting is an endless rabbit hole leading nowhere.

During a crisis, it is time to develop a thick skin. Maintaining a laser-sharp focus on problem-solving allows us to block out the noise.

Distractions prevent action.

Tuning out criticism is not the same as ignoring the critics. Critics help us gain perspective by exposing our blind spots allowing us to improve decision making. Blind-spot recognition transforms criticism into opportunity.

But only give energy to true and useful criticism. False or unuseful criticism knocks us off our mission.

Never Let Criticism Hurt You

Take back control of your emotions from a detractor

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Lean on the mission, purpose and core values

Whether a financial challenge or a global pandemic, unexpected events threatening to bring down our business can paralyze a leader. Situational threats may leave leaders feeling overwhelmed. A sense of shock or numbness is normal when our livelihood or life is at risk.

Reflect inward.

Remember the “why “ behind what we do. As Simon Sinek states, “Start with why” before seeking solutions to a problem.

Our personal mission statements and corporate core values guide the way. For many, these foundational ideas may sit idly on the company website. But turn to them and channel the visionary leader inside of us who wrote them.

The mission and values bring us back to the centre. Through them, we regain firm footing.

Communicate the vision

Great leaders communicate complex ideas and put ideas into action. They clearly articulate the company’s plan and vision. When times are good, this step comes naturally. When a company is challenged, communication becomes dangerous waters.

A wrong move, misstatement, or even the wrong tone potentially derails our efforts. All eyes are on us to bring calmness to the storm.

Clearly articulate the plan and vision. Do not sugar coat a bad situation. This triggers panic. People want and need the authentic truth. Openness and transparency align expectations and create trust, engagement, and buy-in.

A lack of information creates a vacuum, and empty space always gets filled. Fighting off contrasting versions of events creates more time-sucking distractions and reduces the team’s ability to move forward.

Leaders must relay the narrative of the evolving threat with complete transparency. If you do not know the answer, then say so. Demonstrating vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. Tell the story by answering these three questions:

  1. What is happening?
  2. Why is it happening?
  3. What are we doing about it?

The narrative should clearly articulate the short term strategy setting up the company for long term stability.

Remember the human element

Our teammates are human beings. When safety and security threats arise, they worry about their future and families. Each individual navigates the stages of grief on their terms in their own timeline. The team needs an accurate portrayal of events, but they also need space to process the information.

Do not just show compassion and empathy. Internalize and feel them.

Allow these energizing emotions to push us forward towards viable solutions. Leaders must understand where the team is on an emotional level to help move the organization to higher ground.

A leader with open, honest, and transparent messaging relayed with integrity and compassion, will bring hope to the stakeholders.

Trust the team

Resist the urge to micromanage a crisis. Lean on the team. An emergency situation requires all hands on deck. Align expectations. Create clear action items with realistic timelines, follow up reporting mechanisms, and accountability.

It is time to delegate and elevate.

Listen to the team. When leaders listen carefully, we discover underlying problems. We can formulate an action plan to solve the core issues. This process helps us avoid getting stuck in short term issues and reacting to the minute-by-minute problems.

Trusting your team allows leaders to focus on the big picture.

Put your oxygen mask on first

We can not neglect self-care. If we do not protect ourselves, we will be of no use to others. Long hours and lack of sleep may be necessary, but situational pressure can destroy us if we allow it.

Find the tools that worked in the past and lean into them.

From my pandemic experience, two things helped me make it through. I went jogging every evening, and I stuck to my morning routine.

I will admit it was tempting to stop. I wanted to.

I had faith the benefits of my established routine would keep me centred to be the leader our company needed when times were tough.

This article was originally published by Jeff Livingston on medium


Created by

Jeff Livingston

CEO Of MacArthur Medical Center. OBGYN. Co-founder of health and wellness website Medika.Life







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