COVID-19: How to Effectively Lead in a Crisis

COVID-19How to lea

Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist
and the ability to communicate it.
Simon Sinek

What is leadership? It is the ability to influence others.

In a review of leadership in high risk, often life and death situations, Thomas Kolditz and Donna Brazil (2005) concluded that authentic leadership is most valuable. Authentic leaders are confident, optimistic leaders who possess high moral character and ethical reasoning. These types of leaders are most likely to create loyalty, obedience, admirations, and respect. These leaders lead by giving purpose, motivation, and providing direction “in extremis” conditions. Authentic leaders exert much of their effectiveness by allaying the fears of and giving hope for those who follow.[i]

In a review of leadership in high risk, often life and death situations, Thomas Kolditz and Donna Brazil (2005) concluded that authentic leadership is most valuable. Authentic leaders are confident, optimistic leaders who possess high moral character and ethical reasoning. These types of leaders are most likely to create loyalty, obedience, admirations, and respect. These leaders lead by giving purpose, motivation, and providing direction “in extremis” conditions. Authentic leaders exert much of their effectiveness by allaying the fears of and giving hope for those who follow.[i]

In a crisis, a leader must possess a general belief in their ability to make a difference and to be successful, regardless of the challenge. Additionally, this sense of confidence should be communicated to all who will follow. The team must perceive the leader as someone who is trusted, someone who possesses strength and competence to lead those who follow to safety and success successfully.

Throughout history, individuals seek out leadership in a time of crisis. The characteristic qualities that most people seek from a leader are competence, benevolence,  an acute awareness of the present, and a visionary eye towards the future. As a result, leaders seem to exert much of their effectiveness by allaying fears, ensuring safety, and providing hope for those whom they lead.

I have observed the way an organization and its leadership respond to a critical incident that will determine a multiplicity of things.

If the response is reactive, unplanned, or uncoordinated, the response will be ineffective.  A chaotic response will waste resources, and might even be counterproductive. Hurricane Katrina still stands as a dire reminder of the consequences of failed leadership and failed coordination of services. More recently, the failure of key players in the government of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in October of 2017. In both cases, failed leadership and the failed coordination of services cause much unnecessary pain, death, and suffering. NOTE: While the logistical challenges supporting Puerto Rico were massive, there was a significant breakdown of distribution by state and local governments.

If, on the other hand, the response is responsive, planned, and coordinated, the outcomes will be much more favorable. In comparison to Hurricane Maria, the response to Hurricane Harvey in South Texas was handled much smoother.

Now in fairness, you could say I am comparing apples to oranges. Still, when you look at how each area’s leadership responded to their events, I think you will observe a chaotic response in Puerto Rico and a prepared response in Texas.

With that in mind, here are some proven practical things that you can do as a leader.

Begin with the Stockdale Paradox, made famous in Jim Collins book, From Good to Great, is attributed to Admiral James Stockdale (Ret.) Viet Nam POW and Medal of Honor Winner.

 “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail at the end …with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current situation.”

With this in mind, let’s turn out attention to how a leader can maximize their impact in troubled times.

My friend and mentor, Bob Vandepol, is a prominent thought leader in the area of Crisis Leadership And Critical Event Management. He is the Executive Director of Pine Rest Mental Health Services, and Employee and Church Assistance Programs. Before his work with Pine Rest, he was the president of the world’s largest provider of critical event response services to the workplace. He has developed a three-step model, which I was first introduced to in the late ’90s and have used it in close to two hundred events.

Here is one of the best tools to use for communication in a crisis – ACT. [ii]

A – Acknowledge the issue and its impact on people.

In this unique situation, it is wise to acknowledge the fact that so much is currently unknown and that widely different opinions exist.

  • Acknowledge that it is also difficult for you to determine the course of action but that you wish to do so according to the best information available and to protect those you lead and their families.
  • Acknowledge also the impact upon your organization’s operations.
  • Use the real words so that there is no sense you are self-protectively minimizing and “sweeping the issue under the rug.”
  • Do so seriously, but avoid sensationalized language. People may already be anxious, and you do not want to incite greater fear.

C – Communicate pertinent information with both competence and compassion.

Use language such as “This is what we know at this time….” and provide access to credible expert sources such as the CDC, which includes situation updates, answers to frequently asked questions, and printable and video resources.

When anxious themselves, leaders tend to polarize toward either competence or compassion. You need to be both simultaneously. Those looking to you must witness someone who is concerned but not panicked and who has the strength to learn and implement best practices specific to this threat.

This issue is highly personal as people will be visualizing risks to their loved ones, so make sure also to be compassionate. You want people to experience your presence as “My leader knows her/his stuff, is tough enough to handle it, and cares about me as a person.

T —Transition to a future focus.

Do not just share information without outlining the immediate next steps. Immediate next steps. Do we resume operations now? Cancel events and travel? Work from home? How will internal updates be communicated? How and what do we communicate with all external stakeholders? Who are those external stakeholders, and what specific information needs to go to each? 

Also, the ACT Model that is have proven its effectiveness over the years, five proven strategies will help you provide the leadership your team will need, and you move forward.

  1.  Embrace and seize the moment.
  2. Follow the ACT Communication Model

3.  Stay present. Your team needs to see you as a caring, visible, and engaged leader. Influential leaders come out when there is a crisis. There is positive, dynamic energy when the leader leads from the front in both a positive, yet realistic way. (Refer back to the Stockdale Paradox) 

4.  When it’s time to address the media, be sure to plan for every question and eventuality. There is a tendency for CEOs to want to go on camera without thorough preparation because they are used to speaking publicly and know the organization very well. Avoid this temptation and list all possible questions, answers, follow-ups, and counters. Train on camera, relentlessly. An eight to fifteen-second sound bite can ruin your reputation and career. 

5.  Plan your work, work your plan, stay on course, but also stay flexible.

6. Practice Self-Compassion, Self-Care. [iii]

7. Have a consultant or counselor for yourself. 

8. Explore your companies EAP benefit for your organization. These benefits may include counseling, Critical Event Responses, Management Consultations, and Health and Wellness presentation.

In the next few weeks, businesses and ministries will slowly begin moving into an emerging and new routine.

Will you be ready for it?

If not, what do you need to do to prepare for it?

We will get through this!


[i] Everly, George (2008) Psychological Issues in Escape, Rescue, and Survival in the Wake of Disaster; Report Submitted to the National Institute of Occupational Safe and Health, Pittsburg Research Laboratory, Accessed, February 25, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docket/archive/pdfs/NIOSH-154/0154-010108-everly.pdf

[ii] Vandepol, Bob (2020) Effective Crisis Leadership During COVID-19.  Accessed April 20, 2020, https://www.pinerest.org/effective-crisis-leadership-during-covid-19-blog/

[iii] Lynn, Andrea (2017); 5 Strategies for Successful Crisis Leadership. Accessed April 23, 2020; https://www.fallstongroup.com/blog/5-crisis-strategies/

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