Leaders Digest: Five actions for leaders during a crisis - Anne McMurray

Anne McMurray looks to the evidence about effective leadership during a crisis.

When faced with a crisis, most leaders are forced to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar. Whether it’s a technological, financial, natural, or health crisis — at work or in the community — crises demand that leaders make an emergency response plan and adapt it as new evidence and factors present themselves.

Effective leaders are able to remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective. According to Gene Klann, author of ‘Crisis Leadership’,

“During a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.”

As organisational leaders face the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and associated disruptions in the global economy, these are some actions to prepare and respond.


1 Seek credible information.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to determine the most reliable, up-to-date information from trustworthy news sources. While social media can provide access to reliable information, be wary of sources that may have a particular political, financial, or activist agenda which may be biased and, to varying degrees, inaccurate.

In the current case of the coronavirus, consult state and local health services such as the World Health Organisation, the Department of Health, the HSE or the Public Health Agency, where you can find advice on how to prepare and take action, whether you’re working at home or as part of the essential sectors.

2 Use appropriate communication channels.

Once core information is gathered, it should be disseminated to the entire organisation by every means possible. Transparency is key. Information keeps an organisation running smoothly especially during a crisis. It is necessary to centralise communication to ensure that the messaging and content is up to date and accurate. Information is powerful because it:

· reduces emotional distress and worry caused by the unknown,

· diminishes fear,

· provides practical guidance, and

· shows staff that their leaders are concerned, involved, knowledgeable, and actively trying to deal with the situation.

· Takes care that the information you share with others is consistent and ensure that it reflects the reality that people are experiencing ‘on the ground’.

However, experience from previous crises, shows that speed is more important than perfection when it comes to getting message and information out.

Face-to-face communication is best, whether in person or through virtual channels. There is a range of online tools for hosting and personalising virtual meetings to enable your team coming together face-to-face.

It is recommended that key information should be handled with the 3 Rs: Review, Repeat and Reinforce. If information is shared only once, do not assume everyone has received it or that they understand it. Repeating and reinforcing information on a daily basis and via multiple delivery methods helps it to sink in and be retained.

Nature abhors a vacuum. If information regarding what is happening is scarce or non-existent, people may revert to gossip and rumours or even their imaginations. Invariably, what people ‘imagine’ will be worse than reality, no matter how bad reality is.

3 Explain what your organisation is doing about the crisis.

Most people crave certainty. A crisis feels like a survival threat and the brain can respond accordingly – fight/flight/freeze. Generate calm by reinforcing stability through maintaining rituals and routines, reminding people what is staying the same and providing consistent communication.

During a crisis, time is compressed. The initial onset of a crisis presents immense pressure to act — and act quickly. Sometimes you have to begin tackling a problem before you have a solid grasp of what’s happening.

If you are in charge, take charge. Be proactive; use your initiative. Take some small actions which are ‘safe fail’ i.e. even if they go wrong, nothing calamitous will happen. Over thinking and paralysis by analysis is riskier. As you make decisions and take action, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly. Do not give false reassurances or minimise the seriousness of the situation.

Things will change as this crisis unfolds, so be prepared to change decisions as the reality of what we are dealing with becomes clearer.

Remember that everyone observing or living through a crisis views it through a uniquely personal lens. For example, a paramedic may understand only that a hospital is overloaded; a hospital administrator may only know that the generator isn’t working. Keep in mind that no one will have a complete, accurate picture of what’s going on.

4 Be present, visible, and available.

During a crisis, leaders should be accessible. Because it’s not always possible to walk around your unit and talk to colleagues in person, let employees know how they can best reach you with status updates and questions. During a crisis, staff need to hear from their leaders frequently. When leaders appear calm, concerned and knowledgeable, they instil confidence and hope in others.

Accept that you cannot work as usual, from behind a desk and that more time, maybe not all of your time, should be spent physically out of office and being visible and that that is ok.

Leadership needs to be less hierarchical in a crisis. The organisational policy needs to enable flexible leadership across different grades and levels during an emergency. Operational actions cannot be delayed because a key player is unavailable to make decisions when an emergency strikes. Be prepared to step up into leadership if it is necessary for you to take charge.

It can also be useful to create 'focal points' for certain issues and to share the leadership. This is often used in the United Nations for humanitarian work and makes clear operationally who to approach on certain thematic issues.

5 Capture the learning

Things will change. The crisis will transition from its urgent phase. The time pressure will ease, as will the need for split-second decisions. At that point, the plan must evolve into a more complex system that looks at recovery and getting things back to normal — whatever the new normal looks like.

There will be learning from this for the future. Crises require time and resources which often have not been set aside. Some things will have to stop and postponed until a steady state has been re-established at some point in the future. Debriefing from the crisis will help to capture the learning. This will inform future contingency planning, as well as evaluating ways of working that have been developed through the crisis that are applicable for the new ‘normal’.

While improvisation cannot be planned, thinking and team-building exercises are important to prepare everyone for a similar, future crisis.

Adapted from the Center for Creative Leadership by Anne Mc Murray (Anne McMurray Development Ltd) in March 2020. Anne specialises in leadership and team development, and is a CES Associate.