Coronavirus: Leadership during a Crisis

The need for effective leadership is especially acute during a major crisis. Today, I wanted to share a framework for how you can lead others in any crisis you may face.

My experience with crisis management comes from two perspectives.

First, I have helped my CEO clients navigate multiple industry, capital market, and economic crises over the past 25 years.

There was the dot-com boom and crash of 2000.

There was 9/11 in 2001.

There was the Great Recession in 2008.

During the Great Recession, I wrote a book called The Recession-Proof Business and gave over 150 speeches to CEOs who were paralyzed with fear about what to do next.

My guidance has usually been in the context of a client seeing major drops in sales, engaging in layoffs, and redirecting the team in a productive direction (as opposed to being paralyzed by fear or working on their resumes).

And now we are in 2020.

Second, in my free time, I volunteer as an emergency worker for my town and county. (I live eight miles from downtown Seattle, but not technically in Seattle).

I have extensive training in mass-casualty incidents, urban search and rescue, and field-level emergency medical response. I’ve also led mass casualty training exercises as a field operations leader and incident commander. I’ll refer to some of these experiences in a moment.

In a crisis, good leadership requires four things:

  1. Provide Accurate, Frequently-Updated Information
  2. Be Honest to Maintain Credibility & Trust
  3. Tell People about the Plan
  4. Tell People Their Part in the Plan (a.k.a. tell them what to do)
  1. Provide Accurate, Frequently-Updated Information
    In a crisis, people get scared. Human psychology is wired to pay attention to threats. One consequence of this is that the human psyche seeks information. [This is why news headlines tend to be negative during calm times. If you’re scared, you’re more likely to read. The more you read, the more they make in advertising.]

    The first step of crisis leadership is to provide accurate information. If you don’t provide accurate information, people’s imaginations start to run wild, driven by fear and a lack of reliable information.One sign of effective crisis leadership is calm. People are calm when they trust you as a leader. People panic when they don’t trust you to lead them through this crisis.

    This is why it’s useful to get a mood check on the people you lead in a crisis. If they’re scared, you’re not doing your job.

  2. Be Honest to Maintain Credibility & Trust
    When you provide people with information, it’s vital to be honest. People can see with their own eyes what’s going on. If what you say is going on doesn’t match what they are seeing for themselves, that erodes credibility and trust.

    When they don’t trust you to lead, they panic, and fear takes over.The key to maintaining trust and credibility is to be honest. When things are bad, it’s important to say so. It shows you’re aware of the situation and see it as they do.

    Although it’s counterintuitive, it’s oddly reassuring to the people you lead that you see the severity of the problem as they do.

    Let me give you an example. Let's say you’re in an office building and there are reports of a fire on the floor below you in one corner of the building.

    You’ve been asked to evacuate your floor and get people to take a particular fire escape. What do you say?

    If you lie or downplay the situation and say, “I need everyone to take the fire escape on the left. It’s just a drill. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” that might work for a few moments, but the second someone sees smoke entering the floor and yells, “Fire!! Fire!! Run!!” people will panic.

    Instead, you want to be accurate. “Everybody, I need your attention. There’s a fire on the floor below us. It is on the far corner of the building. I need everyone to stand up and calmly walk to the fire escape stairwell over there. This building has advanced fire-suppression technology.

    “There is time for everyone to get to safety if we all calmly take the exit right now. Joe, please stand up, raise your hand, and head to the fire escape. Everyone else, follow Joe. Please walk calmly to make sure we don’t cause any injuries. Okay, stand up now and let's go follow Joe.”

    It is tempting to downplay bad news in a well-intentioned attempt to calm people down. However, it usually backfires.

    If you’re the CEO and you say, “Everything is fine. There’s no problem,” but your sales team knows that sales fell by 50%, they will scratch their heads. They will also tell everyone else, "Hey, sales are down 50%.”

    Your staff will wonder if you didn’t notice the 50% drop. They start to wonder whether you’re inobservant or incompetent. Nobody wants to follow the lead of someone whom they worry is blind to the situation or not competent to handle it. This too causes panic.

    Telling people, “Calm down!” in a vacuum often doesn’t help people calm down. Telling people that the situation is bad but you have a plan to get them out of the situation is more calming.

    In 2009, the economy of dozens of major countries around the world had crashed simultaneously. I did some research on how companies can thrive in a recession and turned that research into a book and speech.

    I gave my speech 150 times over the next two years.

    I started my presentation with a detailed analysis of what caused the crisis and a plan for how they could survive and even thrive despite it.

    My first few slides were, “This crisis isn’t just bad. It’s actually worse than you realize.”

    In short, I said, “There’s no need to wonder if this is a bad situation. I’m telling you empirically, it’s a disaster. No need to wonder. It’s true, and here’s why.”

    Right before people started crying and walking out of the room (many people later told me they were seconds away from walking out), I shifted to… the plan for how they can get out of this situation.

    They desperately wanted to know what to do.

    That’s what a plan is. It’s a list of what to do to get from a place you don’t want to be to a place you’d rather be instead.

  3. Tell People about the Plan
    Once you’ve established that you both see and grasp the severity of the crisis, you need to tell people about your plan.

    People want a plan.As the leader, it’s your job to create and communicate the plan. If you don’t do this, people will tend to assume that you have no plan. If there’s no plan for people to focus on, they worry and start to panic.

    “I need everyone to stand up and calmly walk to the fire-escape stairwell over there.”

    That’s communicating the plan. When people know you have a plan, that is one less thing they need to worry about.

    In every crisis, you need to do two things: 1) Figure out what to do; and 2) Do it. As a leader, if you take care of #1, figuring out what to do, then everyone else can focus on getting it done.

    Oh yeah, you’d better have a good plan too! If your plan isn’t logical, isn’t comprehensive, or doesn’t pass the “common sense” test, people will notice.

    “Hey everyone, there’s a fire on the floor below us. We are going to just sit here and do nothing. And as the room fills with toxic smoke, please just sit here and do nothing.”

    Any five-year-old can tell you this plan makes no sense. If danger is coming toward us, wouldn’t it make sense to move away from danger?

    However, sometimes the natural instinct one has might actually be the wrong move. In that case, you need to explain why everyone’s instinctive reaction is the wrong one.

    “Hey everyone, there’s a fire on the floor below. We need to stay here because our primary escape route is filled with toxic smoke. The fire department is on-scene. They are going to extinguish the part of the fire that’s impeding our escape route. I need everyone to line up in two lines by the fire-escape stairwell. When we get the all-clear from the fire department, we are all going to calmly walk down those stairs.”

    If what you propose is the logical, obvious, common-sense next step, you can get away with not explaining why. If it’s raining outside and you want everyone to come inside, it doesn’t take a lot convincing.

    The more counterintuitive your plan, the more you need to explain why.

  4. Tell People Their Part in the Plan (a.k.a. tell them what to do)
    Finally, you need to tell people what they specifically need to do. As I mentioned earlier, every crisis requires two things: 1) Figuring out what to do; and 2) Doing it. You need to be extremely specific in your instructions.

    When I do CPR drills, here’s what I do. "You, in the blue shirt, I need you to find a phone and call 911. I need you to request a paramedic for a 50-year-old male who's not breathing. Please call them, then come back and tell me that you did. You, in the red jacket, I need you to go to the front of the store, ask if they have an AED (automated external defibrillator). Find it and bring it to me. Now, go.”It’s important to be extremely directive.

    In a crisis, you do not ask.

    You tell people what you need them to do.

    While this may seem impolite (probably because, under normal circumstances, it is a bit impolite), it’s oddly reassuring because it reduces the need for others to make decisions. If people don’t have to think or decide, they don’t become paralyzed with fear and can shift toward taking action.

    Crisis demands timely action.

Coronavirus Crisis Leadership

During this crisis, there’s an enormous need for leadership. I’ve seen two examples of excellent leadership that I want to highlight.

Dr. Anthony Fauci — Director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases

Jay Inslee — Governor of Washington state.

What both leaders have in common is that they’ve provided accurate information, shared “the plan,” and have directed people as to what they should do right now.

In addition, both leaders have not been shy to tell us what we need to hear, even if it is something we do not want to hear. This is a very common trait in crisis leadership — telling people what they don’t want to hear.

It demonstrates accuracy in thinking, confirms people’s fears, and redirects those fears toward productive action. If you ignore the fears, people stay in fear mode. If you can acknowledge the fear while communicating a good plan, it redirects energy from fear to productive action.

That’s the role of crisis leadership — redirecting negative emotional energy into productive action.

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