Leadership in times of crisis: Pivoting towards recovery

Pivoting towards recovery

When a crisis event occurs, it tests your leadership skills.

When things happen suddenly, leaders can rapidly identify the problem and take decisive action. With the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), it’s different. It continues to evolve. For some, it can be overwhelming. For others, it can cause them to doubt themselves because a good decision today may be a bad decision tomorrow. It can cause paralysis. Psychologists call this normalcy bias. We generally expect the future to follow similar patterns we’ve experienced. When something new disrupts the pattern, it can cause us to underestimate the impact. As COVID-19 started to impact lives one in region after another, it took time for people to overcome this bias.

As the pandemic disrupts daily life, leadership demands resilience.


A resilient leader projects a sense of optimism and hope during a crisis. While being realistic, they are able to assure others and find renewed purpose in managing through difficult times.

When confronted with an unforeseen crisis, your team doesn’t expect you to have all the answers immediately. They will, however, look to you for guidance and a pathway forward.

Here are the five steps to define the process to respond and recover from a crisis:

  1. Respond & Adapt:  Shift the team’s mindset from reacting to planning and reimagining
  2. Identify & Navigate:  Define the uncertainties and their implications
  3. Embed Trust:  Give them reasons to follow your lead
  4. Define & Launch:  Create and clearly explain the plan
  5. Observe & Learn: Recovery from a crisis is rarely a straight line, so it’s critical to watch, learn from others, and adapt as necessary

This resilience is a hallmark of great leadership skills. Great leaders can work through the phases of a crisis concurrently. This means helping teams through the immediate crisis while defining the plan and building towards recovery.

It can be difficult to project confidence – especially when you’re not sure everything is going to be OK – but there is reason to be optimistic and to act now. A Harvard Business Review study of post-economic crisis businesses reported that two-thirds of the companies that made major gains did so during an economic downturn - not before or after.

Building and maintaining trust

Even if you’ve done everything else correctly, without accomplishing step 3 – trust – your plans are not likely to succeed. A study of 87,000 business leaders identified three key elements that engendered trust by team members:

1. Building positive relationships

Building trust means building positive relationships. In a crisis, it means showing empathy. During the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrate your understanding of the impact it’s having on your team and their families. Your actions will tell them whether you truly care about them. In recovery, you're going to need your team to be effective. Take care of them.

2. Expertise and solid judgement

Being a well-informed and knowledgeable leader is a key ingredient in trust. This means being able to anticipate and respond to problems with a plan along with the flexibility to change plans as situations evolve.

3. Consistency

People need to know you are consistent in the way you deal with people. You honour commitments and follow through. You walk the walk.

Trust is the foundation upon which confidence is built. Without trust, people won’t follow.

Communicating with impact

Throughout all of this, your leadership skills will be on display – one way or another. Your ability to communicate the right messaging will be crucial.

During a crisis, your team members will feel additional stress and anxiety. It’s easy for them to miss important information. People may not be able to process multiple facts, misconstrue what they hear, or struggle to remember what they are supposed to do.

Simplify your message. Be clear about what you need. Repeat it often.

Building trust also means being transparent. That means being honest about the situation, what you know and what you don’t know. Confidence is one thing. False bravado is another.

Taking care of yourself

In a crisis, leaders focus on taking care of the business and their team. What leaders sometimes forget is to take care of themselves.

Avoid self-medicating and other destructive behaviours. Stress, anxiety, poor eating habits, and lack of sleep can take a toll.

If you currently must work at home or you're in isolation you may be more sedentary than normal. Get up and move! Make a conscious decision to do some physical activity daily. Exercise raises serotonin levels and releases endorphins. This can boost your sense of well-being and help you get a good night’s sleep.

One thing is certain: you will be judged on the actions you take right now or those you fail to take. Your company, your stakeholders, and your team members are looking to you to lead. It’s your time to put all the training and experience you've accumulated to work. That's leadership.

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