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How to Lead in Times of Crisis

Crises don’t just test our smarts; they test our character, too. You cannot control the crisis, but you can control how you respond.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 17, 2020

A crisis is the single most difficult challenge for anyone, not just leaders. No one is ever ready for the unexpected, especially when it comes in the form of a virus that takes the entire world by storm.

People are overwhelmed and confused, letting fear drive their actions.

Crises don’t just test our smarts; they test our characters. We cannot control the crisis, but we can control how we respond.

Leading in uncertainty requires us to embrace our vulnerability. It’s the perfect opportunity to be humble rather than arrogant and to collaborate with others rather than view them as competitors.

We can wait for the storm to pass and go back to doing business as usual. Or, we can turn this crisis into a growth opportunity. Here are some thoughts to help you lead in uncertain times.

Be calm

You cannot control what happens, but you can control how you react. Don’t allow emotions to bring the worst out in you. Think in slow motion. Become an example of calmness, inspiring others to keep their heads, too.

Staying calm requires taking a moment to figure out what’s really going on. Focus on facts, not on people’s fears or anxieties. There’s a lot of misinformation going around, from people minimizing issues to others seeding panic.

Try getting a good night’s sleep and start fresh the next day. Sleep not only helps us think clearly; research has shown that it also boosts our immune systems. If you're sleep-deprived, you’re more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections.

Staying calm is crucial for making wise decisions.

Remember poet Rudyard Kipling’s words, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.”

Stay Focused

Don’t turn the quarantine into a pause. Life must go on. The paradox of time is that we always complain that we don’t have time for what we want, but when we get free time, we waste it.

You’ve probably been ‘forced’ to work remotely. This change creates a lot of unexpected free time. There’s no need to commute to the office, many regular (useless) meetings are canceled, and managers are busy adapting to their new routines, too.

Most people are not used to working from home — at least not every day of the week. In addition to this, our family members are also at home, and our colleagues are trying to adapt to this new reality.

Use this unique opportunity to focus on what really matters. Now is the time to get rid of time-wasters and activities that harm your productivity. Don’t wait until the crisis is over, prepare now for when it’s finished.

Reflect on how you usually manage your time. What things help or harm your productivity? What practices should you get rid of? What new behaviors can you adopt?

Define clear rules for collaboration with your colleagues, managers, and family. Set boundaries. Reserve time for exercising, learning, and resting.

Social distancing doesn’t mean distancing ourselves from our activities and responsibilities. Spend your time wisely.

Act promptly

The biggest challenge with a crisis is that people don’t know they’re facing one until their inaction or stupid behavior make things worse.

Don’t try to sugarcoat reality. Faced with bad news, many leaders tend to minimize facts. They try to convince others that things aren’t so bad; not acting promptly can be harmful.

In 1982, 7 people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson didn’t dismiss this incident as small sabotage; the company recalled every bottle of Tylenol — a decision that cost Johnson & Johnson $100 million.

Against all predictions, the company was able to recover; acting promptly paid off because consumers praised J&J for doing the right thing.

There’s one simple truth when facing a crisis: no matter how bad things are, they will usually get worse. Act now; don’t wait until it’s too late.

Befriend uncertainty

The only sure thing about a crisis is that you don’t know how things will turn out. Leading in times of crisis means that you have to make decisions with only 20% of the information available.

In times of crisis, it’s more common for people to step back and see how things go. However, uncertain times require us to be brave; we must step in.

You won’t have all the information at hand, and that’s okay.  However, inaction can be as dangerous as overreacting. It’s better to make a decision that’s not perfect (and then course correct) than to be a passive observer.

The goal is not to be perfect but to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Be honest with people; don’t pretend that you have all the answers. Ask for help and advice more than ever before. This is a time to involve subject matter experts, not just depend on our gut instincts.

Be safe

Humans are good at thriving. This is not the first and will not be the last crisis that we’ll face. We probably haven’t faced one before that had disrupted the world all at once, and so quickly. However, we saw the initial signs coming and many choose to dismiss them until things scaled fast.

I hear a lot of people saying, “That’s not going to happen to me.” Minimizing risks is not smart. We all tend to think we’re immune to adverse events until it’s too late.

The Optimism Bias is a dangerous thing, especially during a massive global crisis. It’s the belief that each of us is more likely to experience good outcomes and less likely to experience adverse outcomes. We disregard the danger of a particular situation because we think we are excluded from the potential negative effects.

Staying safe doesn’t mean just caring about yourself; make sure your decisions consider other people’s safety as well.

Keep going

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Someone said (but it wasn’t Winston Churchill).

We are all going through some kind of hell because of the Coronavirus. My business practice got disrupted entirely. As a speaker and consultant, I have to cancel all my talks and postpone several workshops and projects. However, I was able to create virtual versions of my Masterclasses and launch new online services.

But, I remind myself that others are facing harsher realities. Older adults are not only more susceptible to the virus, but suffering from isolation. Others have lost loved ones because of the virus. Many might soon lose their jobs entirely.

When you feel lost, remember that someone else might be going through a worse version of hell. It’s no consolation but, at least it gives us perspective.

Overcoming a crisis takes time. No one knows whether things will get back to normal in two weeks or two months. I didn’t want to wait and have transformed many of my services into virtual offerings to continue working with and helping my clients.

Plan for the worst, and hope for the best. But, in the meantime, keep going through hell.

Stay human

Crises can bring out the best in people — or the worst. It’s up to us.

Just because the world is being disrupted, it doesn’t mean that your values should be disrupted, too. Social distancing doesn’t mean distancing from people. Taking care of ourselves doesn’t mean doing it at the expense of others.

Whatever role you play in the world, in your family, or at work, you have the chance to become an agent of positive influence. Don’t just stay calm but help others to be calm. Don’t just do the right thing; help others to grow as they go through hell.

Crises put our leadership abilities to the test. How will you lead your life? How will you influence others?

Don’t wait for the crisis to finish, prepare now for when it’s over. The person who steps out of the storm can be a better version of yourself, or just the same. It’s up to you.

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