27 September 2023

Three steps to successful crisis leadership

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May Busch* says in these uncertain times good leadership has never been so much in demand — and never so difficult to provide.

When times are good, we can envision the future, which makes it easier to take a strategic approach to business and life.

In times of uncertainty, we can fall into a state of fear where options seem limited and it’s hard to think clearly, much less take strategic action.

Whether you’re a team leader, a team member, or a bit of both, you can’t afford to be in fear mode for very long.

It’s time to tap into your best self; the ‘you’ that rises to the occasion, even if the situation is unprecedented, uncertain and full of ‘what ifs’.

To help you act strategically in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, I’ve found these three steps to be valuable.

Listen Broadly

This means going beyond the people in your inner circle to listen to those who have current insights and experience and are in touch with parts of the organisation that you aren’t.

If you restrict yourself to input from those closest to you, and if each of those people does the same down the line, there’s a real risk of falling into the ‘group think’ trap.

In times of uncertainty, make sure you’re listening to and asking for the input from your team members, clients, suppliers, and any others who are likely to have a finger on the pulse of what’s really going on and what the future might bring.

We all live and operate in a broader ecosystem.

Tapping into the full extent of yours can provide valuable clues to help you be more surefooted about your strategy.

Embrace Improvisation

When you’re leading in times of uncertainty, you’ll need to adapt to changing circumstances.

That means embracing improvisation.

Just like performing artists who do ‘improv’, which is an unscripted collaboration, leaders have to take actions and make decisions that affect others without a playbook to direct them.

In these times, adopting an ‘improv’ mindset can be highly effective.

This means being open to not knowing all the answers.

Resisting the urge to make too many decisions all at once, which can lock you in when things are only going to change.

Keeping your options open so you can be nimble in the face of changing circumstances.

As former Chair and Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt says: “In a crisis, make only the decisions you must make.”

That gives you flexibility to make better decisions on the other matters should new information come to light.

Focus on Principles

When things are uncertain and constantly changing, you won’t have the luxury of textbook solutions for every challenge that comes up.

Neither will your team.

Frankly, it’s impossible to anticipate everything.

Even if you did have a strategy lined up for every eventuality, chances are that changes in the environment will make them outdated.

That’s where having a focus on principles will help guide your decisions, actions and strategy in the most effective way.

When you communicate these principles to your team, they become shared principles that enable people to respond to situations more confidently and effectively when you aren’t around.

Here are two of my favourite principles.

When interacting with stakeholders treat people the way they want to be treated.

This reminds leaders and managers to be empathetic and helps them do well by their team members, colleagues and clients in a way that an official HR handbook simply can’t.

Secondly, when faced with an unattractive trade-off look for the third way.

To paraphrase the former Dean of Rotman Business School, Roger Martin when you’re faced with an either/or decision, look for a third way that builds on the other two ideas but produces a superior outcome.

In these uncertain times, people need leadership — your leadership.

When you step up as a leader — with or without the formal title — remember to listen broadly, embrace improvisation, and focus on principles to guide your behaviour and actions.

Which of these will most help you face the uncertainties and step up to lead in these uncertain times?

*May Busch works with entrepreneurs and managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at [email protected].

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