These are unprecedented times for most leaders in industry, but they are not that unusual for those who served in the military on operations, where great theoretical plans go out the window and instead clear, calm thinking and fast reaction to events are required. 

A Leadership paradox – Calm v’s Fast

Employees are scared - The humanitarian toll taken by COVID-19 is creating fear among employees and other stakeholders. The massive scale of the outbreak and its unpredictability makes it challenging for executives to respond.

Events are moving fast - Currently, events are moving fast, which are outside a company’s control, so good decision-making is required. Quite a lot of executives and companies were slow to register the gravitas of events, but are now accelerating to catch up.

This is a crisis, and it needs a response, but this time it is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty. Your company's Disaster Recovery Plan has gone out of the window. This is a time when great Leaders shine through. It is time to foster collaboration and transparency across a network of Response Teams within your organisation. Its also about get even harder as your staff start to either work from home or self-isolate.

We do not know where or when the end of this crisis will come. We can look to China and South Korea for some answers and guidance. As a leader, you must inject positivity and hope into your teams, but at the same time be realistic.

There is no doubt that this pandemic is going to show who the good leaders are.

Leadership Tips

Stay Calm - Losing your head at a moment like this is not going to help anybody. This is the moment to stay calm and use your ‘EQ’ (emotional intelligence) with both self-awareness and awareness of your team. It is one of the critical foundations of effective leadership.

Have Courage - You will be required to make some difficult decisions very quickly, which could impact people within your own company and your community. You must have moral courage and fully understand the impact of your decision. If your objective is correct and you understand fully what you have to do, then it helps with you making the right decision. But be prepared to cope with the discomfort that a difficult but correct decision might bring.

“Great crisis produces great people and great deeds of courage.”  John F. Kennedy

Communicate with all parties - In times or uncertain, stress and fear, it is essential that as a leader, you are communicating upwards and downwards to ensure all parties are receiving the right information. You are seeing how the Government are now talking to the nation daily. With the information from the Government and  you, then your staff can act accordingly. Communication is going to play an even more vital role in your job as a leader when your team and yourself start to work from home. Leadership in this new 'virtual' work world of sorts is going to test your leadership skills.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  Winston Churchill

Be Willing to take a Risk - You need to understand the difference between a gamble and a risk. So, it is vital that you have as much information as possible at that time. You need to be willing to take measured risks in certain areas without abrogating responsibility. This will be achieved if leaders at all levels do two things: you must  set the example in this regard and must develop an ethos where a failure to act is considered a more serious fault that making a mistake. 

“Being challenged in life is inevitable. Being defeated is optional.”  Roger Crawford, US Professional Tennis player, disabled

 Take a moment to figure out what is going on - Understand what your objective is and what are the key factors that the company and your team need to consider. This will require delegation so that key information can be collected quickly and accurately. In a crisis such as this, leaders face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood and you will have only a limited amount of facts. Keep collecting information and use a framework to make the decisions and not necessarily base it on your intuition.


As an ex-Royal Marine told, "Assumptions are made by dead men".

Act promptly, not hurriedly - As a leader, now is the time to show your staff why you are the appointed leader. The time has come to show strong leadership skills and provide direction for your staff, clients and supply chain. You must not be seen to lose your cool or rush around like a headless chicken. Acting irrationally and panicking will only make your already nervous staff more scared. You need to act with 'deliberate' speed and be decisive. 

“Be quick but do not hurry”  John Wooden

Manage expectations - We are all wanting this current crisis to be over right now. It is surreal, and there are many unknowns. Your staff are scared and want ‘normal’ to return as soon as possible. It falls to you the leader to deal with this uncontrollable crisis. You don’t want to alarm your staff, yet you must not be afraid of telling them the truth and the magnitude of the situation. 

"Transparency is 'Job One' for leaders in a crisis" Amy Edmondson

Show Compassion - An empathetic leader is a good one, in particular during a crisis such as this. You need to show genuine and effective empathy. People are genuinely scared for a multitude of reasons – jobs, money, family, security and health.

“In crisis management, be quick with the facts and slow with the blame.”

Control the Controllables - Despite the many uncontrollables going on around this coronavirus globally, you must assume control of the controllables, which in this case is how you respond to this crisis. As a leader, you must start to react and respond quickly by bringing together a ‘nerve-centre’ team who have the knowledge, experience and resource to tackle this ‘once in a lifetime challenge’.

Think of Red Adair, who made a name for himself as an innovator in putting out oilwell fires that no one else could. A raging blaze may seem uncontrollable, but Adair knew he could control the way it was extinguished.

Be flexible and Responsive - A hallmark of a crisis is its ability to change quickly. Your first response as a leader may not be your final response. Be flexible, be open-minded and be responsive to make adjustments or even change strategy. As you receive new information, you will be better informed to make better plans. Be prepared to delegate and empower.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army - Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder

Set Direction - As much as you want to be seen pitching in and rolling your sleeves up, micromanaging will give you no time to anticipate the next move and setting direction. Somebody needs to be in charge of looking down the road. That is the role of the leader.

What leaders need during the crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead.

Position and Perspective - As a leader in a crisis such as this, it is vital to be able to step back from the frontline and think, where you should be positioned to deal with the issues and the solutions. It is important that you have and provide perspective.

Quite often the team leader in mountaineering expeditions often remains at base camp rather than hiking to the summit. That way, if trouble strikes, he can direct the response with the perspective that comes from seeing the mountain as a whole and the conditions that affect the summit team.

Making High-Quality Decisions - In a crisis, the leader or the teams might not have all the information that they would like. This calls for the leader to use a robust decision-making framework that will deliver a much higher quality outcome. (I can help you and your team with that if you find you are struggling.)

Winston Churchill was a master at encapsulating the challenge but at the same time providing a response. On taking up the office of Prime Minister in 1940, he said, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”

Finally, try and stay healthy and fit, as you will need to find capacity in your daily life to lead your team and organisation through this epidemic and very serious economic crisis. It could go on for longer than you think.

Next Steps

If you need help with your leadership skills and styles, I can help. I run Leadership 360 profiles and assess the decision-making of teams and individuals. These can all be done while you are working from home or self-isolating. 

I also run coaching and mentoring sessions in person or as in the current situation on video calls.

Good Luck

Some books to read on Leadership in a Crisis:

Executing Crisis: A C-Suite Crisis Leadership Survival Guide by Rothstein Associates

Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by John Murray

Crisis Leadership: Using Military Lessons, Organizational Experiences, and the Power of Influence to Lessen the Impact of Chaos on the People You Lead by Center for Creative Leadership

Crisis Management during the Roman Republic by Cambridge University Press

Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message by McGraw-Hill Education