Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
LEADING THROUGH CRISIS
How do you show up when life puts you to the test?
Crisis is an opportunity to connect and unite your team around your organization’s values and purpose … [which] provide a compass to give your activities a direction that is deeply motivating.
Leading is never easy. But there is no denying that a crisis like COVID-19 brings new meaning to the challenge of leadership—even for the strongest leaders. Crises require leaders to both lead and manage simultaneously and effectively. Managing addresses the urgent needs of the present and the taking of decisive action. Leading involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome, which demands seeing beyond the immediate to anticipate obstacles ahead.
To complicate the situation, intense pressure makes it difficult to think clearly. Unless controlled, the flow of cortisol to the brain that high stress creates makes it hard to think beyond immediate survival. Situational pressure can lead to significant changes in the leader’s mindset and style. In the best cases, the situation can surface undiscovered talents and strengths. At the other end of the spectrum, people revert to the default negative behaviors they may have worked hard to overcome.
Whether you’re still hunkered down at home, coping with the aftermath of the virus, dealing with loss, or your life has returned to some new version of normal, this is a silver-lining moment to step back and take a hard look at how you lead under the toughest of circumstances. While the fundamentals of good leadership still apply, certain qualities become increasingly important.
Here are seven critical behaviors for leaders to consider in times of crisis:
- Put people first. In times of crisis, it is easy to get absorbed in managing the processes needed to keep the business running and to overlook the human factor. Emotionally intelligent leaders pay close attention to their people’s ability to adapt and function through a crisis. They recognize that each individual’s needs, coping mechanisms and levels of resilience are different. For example, people who are internally motivated, disciplined and self-sufficient typically do well working remotely. Individuals who need the routine, public accountability and camaraderie that most office environments provide often struggle when working from home. People who are anxious under normal circumstances may find it impossible to focus on their work when faced with a crisis.
Good leaders frequently check in with individual team members to assess how they’re doing and what support they may need. They create plenty of opportunities for team interaction like morning huddles, virtual coffee breaks and Zoom lunch and learns to keep people connected.
- Be bigger than your fear. Behavior and emotions don’t just emerge within ourselves; rather, they are deeply influenced by other people. Research shows that this tendency toward emotional contagion and copying other peoples’ behaviors is present even in times of relative calm. Because fear is nearly 100% contagious, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the chaos and panic around us. In times of crisis, your employees, your clients, and your suppliers look to you as the leader to project a sense of calm. Navigating a sudden, deep and widespread crisis, like a global pandemic, requires a level of calm fortitude that is not called for every day; in fact its rarely tapped in most lifetimes.
Effective leaders know that while fear is uncomfortable, it won’t kill you. They see it, name it and put it in the passenger seat of the car, present but not driving their decisions and actions. They pay close attention to their inner dialogue and avoid ruminating about their fears. Instead, they find a “mantra,” a phrase or sentence that can be repeated over and over. It can be something as simple as “I’ll be okay,” or, “we’re tough,” or “we’re going to make it through.”
- Monitor your status. Leading in a crisis is about managing yourself so that you have physical and mental energy to go the distance. Being stressed can be hard to admit for a leader—even when they’re feeling that they are in over their heads. Leaders often minimize or deny that stress is an issue, believing it applies only to others but not themselves, and then they worry that any signs of fatigue or stress may impact perceptions about their abilities. It is not uncommon to hear about leaders collapsing from exhaustion, health crises, or even dying prematurely from a heart attack or stroke. High stress can manifest in various ways—ranging from antisocial and aggressive behavior at work or home, to sleep deprivation, excessive drinking or illness.
Wise leaders pace themselves to finish and win. They maintain their reserves and learn to expend only the energy they need. When they need to move at full speed, they take breaks and time to recover. When they’re tired, they let someone else lead for a brief period of time to reduce the stress.
- Be a realistic optimist. Acknowledging reality, fully exploring worst-case scenarios, and having a clear plan to deal with them are essential. Effective leaders recognize that if fear of downsides dominates our mindset and moods, it can be paralyzing. In times of crisis, people need to believe that they will get through this and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Leaders need to attend to positive emotions consciously and continually. Positive emotions come in many packages—from thinking about what we can do (not what we can’t) to connecting and sharing challenges. Just as fear is contagious, so is positivity.
- Build resilience. Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It applies to the organization and every member of the team. The more resilience we have, the faster we bounce back, and the more capable we are of seeing challenge as a growth opportunity. Resilience is not a fixed trait; it can be learned. Like building a muscle, increasing resilience takes intentionality and repetition. Skilled leaders build resilient organizations and team members by focusing on healthy thinking and finding meaning and growth opportunities in challenges. They model that extreme effort brings out the best in us and that adversity is a time to grow our courage and strength.
- Stay agile. Crises require quick reflexes, coordination, balance, speed, and correct responses to the changing situation. Effective leaders are always thinking ahead. They ground their team by focusing on the immediate goals and generating at least three pathways to get there. The energy and creativity sparked by the generative process increase the hopeful belief that the organization has the agility, flexibility, and ingenuity to adapt to a new way forward as events quickly emerge.
- Lead with purpose and values. Crisis is an opportunity to connect and unite your team around your organization’s values and purpose. Abstract ideas get translated into meaningful action. Values and purpose provide a compass to give your activities direction that is deeply motivating. Purpose-driven leaders understand and take the time to communicate:
- The vision of who the organization needs to be in the crisis
- The meaningful contribution the organization can make
- The higher purpose this experience serves
- What we can do that will make us proud when this phase is in the rearview mirror
- The intention that is important to bring to each moment
If you’re reading this article, you’ve survived. Likely you’ve managed or are managing the crisis better than you ever thought you could.
Now is the time to reflect on what you’ve learned. Unlike the critical thinking you do every day—which is aimed at problem solving—reflection helps you enhance the framing of issues, see patterns, and make meaning of new information. The research is compelling that reflection leads to better decision-making and the confidence to take bold action.
As you reflect on your experience in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, consider:
- What have you learned about yourself as a leader?
- What new strengths have you discovered in yourself and your team?
- How resilient and agile are your organization and the individuals on your team?
- As a result of the crisis, were there shifts in mindset, behaviors, and processes that you want to carry forward?
- Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you could recreate the company from a blank slate?
There will be another crisis, hopefully not one of this magnitude. Reflecting and acting on the lessons learned will make you a stronger leader today and better prepared for the future.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com), which works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property/casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson andtwitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.