Leading in a crisis

Leading in a crisis

We are living in extraordinary times and the need for effective leadership is front and centre of the requirements for organisations to survive and ultimately thrive in the new environment. This blog, written by Ian Kirkby – one of our performance consultants who specialises in Leadership, Team and Organisational Development, provides leaders with a 7-step guide that will enhance your impact during crises.

One – ACT!

It is vitally important to be decisive: one of the cardinal sins for a leader is to project uncertainty. This saps the energy out of staff, drains confidence, ensures internal conflict and unfairly leaves junior managers to guess at their priorities. In times of difficulty, the panic effect from unclear leadership is multiplied with often disastrous results. So, be decisive, but not rash, and positively determine your chosen courses of action (are your vision, strategic objectives and supporting plans crystal clear and aligned?).


Do not try to do everything: narrow your focus to the things that really matter and quickly cancel programmes and projects that have become outdated. Knowing what stop is is as valuable as knowing what to do. When resources are stretched, as they are now, it is especially important to be ruthless in ensuring effective usage. However, avoid the temptation to over-focus on the short-term: even in a crisis, give thought to medium and long-term plans.


Having decided on your priorities and associated goals, make sure they are regularly and clearly communicated throughout the organisation, and that everyone knows how they contribute to their achievement. With remote working it is particularly important that staff understand the priorities and how their work aligns with that of others so they can use their initiative to improve overall output.

Communicate regularly, at all levels and in a variety of formats. Emphasise why the goals are important and what the results will be. One of the less glamorous but still vital roles of the executive is to be a CRO (Chief Reminding Officer). If you are not bored with repeating the message you are probably not doing it enough.


The old ‘carrot and stick’ approach to leadership does not work in a complex and rapidly changing environment. Instead, the emphasis should be on empowering people to act within clear boundaries. People need more attention now than they did before because interactions are less regular and virtual conferencing and calls can sap energy and time.

To that end, take great care with recruitment and promotion: do not over-focus on technical skills but ensure that those selected have the necessary character traits to thrive in your culture and to work productively in the new environment. Adaptability and resilience are going to be key traits that will be in the DNA of those who thrive in the new normal.

Five – BE FLEXIBLE – like bamboo!

In a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), change is the only constant, but effective leaders can thrive in it by building resilience and agility, and by learning quickly from mistakes (their own and others’). To do so, you must develop an acute awareness and the ability to flex your style accordingly, a bit like bamboo. Learn how to use strategic thinking skills to discern macro-patterns despite incomplete or even contradictory information. More strategic leaders are already looking at and beyond the new normal: they maintain a ‘helicopter view’ and focus in when necessary.

Build a deep understanding of your own strengths and weakness as well as those of your team and wider organisation. Crucially, master the skill of flexing your leadership style on a continuum from directive to supportive as required. This flexibility is particularly helpful In crises when it is important to relate to individuals in ways that will best help them to perform when normal routines are disrupted (leadership is about service, after all). Psychometric tools such as TSDI and DiSC can be helpful in ascertaining and sharing preferred relating and working styles that can boost team dynamics and reduce unhealthy conflict.


It is easy in times like this for leaders to yield to the temptation to become professional machines. However, your team needs you to be human as well, so make time for social interaction: ask about their families and interests, acknowledge their concerns and be available for them. Show them that you are in this together. Make allowances where it is reasonable to do so but keep the bar high.

Also, be willing to listen. You do not have all the answers (no one does!). Allow others to appropriately challenge assumptions, ask questions and make suggestions. Apart from generating more and better ideas, this will help them engage better with your final decision.


Finally, it is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of displaying authenticity and trustworthiness. Trust is the very foundation of good leadership and effective teams, and yet it is too often sacrificed on the altar of corporate spin. Whilst it is clearly unwise to share everything openly with everyone, a realistic assessment of the situation, coupled with a decisive and bold action plan, delivered with confidence, is far more likely to inspire people to follow you and engage in the achievement of your goals. Where there is uncertainty then it is acceptable to say something like ‘at the moment we don’t know the full impact of the economic downturn but as soon as we have a good estimate, I will update you’ – and be sure to do so.


Whilst there are unique pressures at this time, there are also unique opportunities. Leaders thrive on change and by developing your skills in the areas above, you can be one of them.


The author, Ian Kirkby, has served in a number of senior roles and has many years’ experience of coaching and training executives and senior teams. He was recently interviewed for a national podcast on this subject by The Leaders Council.


theGrogroup are experts in advising organisations on how to improve performance by effectively executing and embedding required change. We help clients to find effective and impactful leadership and management solutions that deliver real results. Please contact us on 0333 7722 061 or email kate@thegrogroup.com