How Leaders Respond to Crises and What We Can Learn

The coronavirus pandemic has placed unique demands on business and healthcare leaders...Here's what we can learn from the crises.

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The coronavirus pandemic has placed unique demands on business and healthcare leaders, pulling much of their attention away from growth towards controlling losses. This public health crisis has also changed what most of them understand about handling widespread and enduring emergencies. Moreover, they continue to face challenges with maintaining safety and supporting their employees and clients through changes in working conditions.

The Nature of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has caused havoc and uncertainty at all societal levels. This worldwide public health emergency fits the classic characteristics of a crisis:

  • An unlikely event or sequence of events
  • Of vast scale
  • Occurring at tremendous speed
  • Producing uncertainty and disorientation
  • Resulting in extensive loss of life or property
  • Creating emotional distress

No matter how large or small, a disaster can affect your organization’s stability and bottom line. It is important to realize that crises are inevitable, and that the best way to mitigate their effects is to anticipate them and be prepared to minimize their impacts. An anticipatory approach requires that leaders follow the following tenets before, during, and in the aftermath of a crisis.

Respond Rapidly

When a disaster threatens an organization, leaders should act as quickly as possible. Infrastructure, procedures, and teams should already be in place so that leaders can employ them immediately.

In the wake of the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s administration responded promptly. Within six days of the attack, the government made wide-ranging changes to the country’s gun laws. Ardern’s actions garnered a great deal of credibility and trust from citizens in her nation, and elsewhere.

Delegate Teams

No true leader controls a crisis response, much less makes sound decisions, without team-building and delegation. Before a crisis emerges, leaders need to identify organizational members who can take on specific tasks. They also must be able to embolden individuals and teams and help them build cohesion. While delegating, leaders can identify priorities and communicate them clearly to the delegated teams.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer who led an ill-fated Trans-Atlantic expedition to Antarctica, had to rely on team-building to ensure his crew’s survival. When their ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the ice and sank, Shackleton had to maintain cohesion among his team as they floated on ice sheets, eventually reaching safety on Elephant Island. Their survival was due primarily to their ability to work together through the ordeal.

Be Transparent

High-profile leaders need to be transparent when facing the public on behalf of their organizations. A leader who is anything less than honest reflects poorly on the organization long after a crisis is over. When an organization has culpability in a catastrophe, the leader should take ownership of it as soon as possible.

Directness goes a long way, especially when coupled with compassion. That was illustrated when Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky announced pandemic-induced layoffs of nearly 25 percent of the company’s workforce. He was straightforward, writing in an internal memo that it was unclear when travel would resume, or what form it would take when it did. And he made clear to the employees who were laid off that the decision to make cuts had not been an easy one:

I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.

Give Frequent Updates

Organizations need to maintain regular communication with their members, stakeholders, and the public throughout a crisis. Giving frequent updates maintains the public’s confidence and trust and shows that leadership is adapting to unfolding developments. Press conferences and town halls can help leaders give assurances to the public and take questions from them.

During the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea worked quickly to provide regular television broadcasts and subway announcements early in the disaster. South Koreans received frequent and consistent messaging, which helped the entire country deal with the threat and take proper precautions early on.

Display Bounded Optimism

Leaders need to express bounded optimism to the public, which means tempering hopefulness and confidence with realism. Excessive optimism will diminish leaders’ credibility, especially if they communicate it in the early stages of a crisis. A more effective strategy is to convey confidence in the organization’s ability to overcome the situation while recognizing the uncertainty it faces.

Sir Winston Churchill excelled at bounded optimism. His ability to convey optimism without understating the risks his country faced on a daily basis earned him the trust and credibility of British citizens during World War II. For this and other reasons, history remembers Churchill as one of the best crisis leaders in history.

Monitor the Situation and Adapt

Strong leaders never assume that conditions remain stable during a crisis. Such individuals continually monitor the situation and look for signs that warrant adaptation in plans or personnel. They also continue to rely on their teams for input and seek the advice of outside experts, stakeholders, and community leaders.

While continuing to collect information and input from others, it’s not always pertinent to wait for all the data to come in before making a time-sensitive decision. Suppose a state lifts a COVID-related curfew and allows visits in skilled nursing facilities to resume. Nursing home managers might resume visitations with caution, but if they learn of an uptick in COVID-19 cases in their city, they might not wait for an order from the governor to resume visit restrictions.

We can look to history and current events for exemplary leaders who established their credentials when they faced and overcame trying circumstances. More importantly, their crisis responses have benefited their organizations and communities. We can learn much from influential leaders’ management of crises and the resulting transformative changes.    

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