5 Strategies for Leading Through a Crisis

A crisis has been defined as a “low probability, high consequence event that threatens the most fundamental goals of an organization.” It could be a natural disaster, act of violence, criminal act, an epidemic, or even a pandemic. Crises have happened throughout time, some on a small scale, affecting just one school or company; others on a large scale, affecting entire states, countries, or even the world. Leading during a crisis presents a unique set of obstacles and can prove challenging for even the best leaders. Below are some strategies that have served others well when leading their organizations through one or more crises.  

Communication

Leaders always need to communicate well, but during a crisis communication becomes even more critical. Members of an organization rely on clear and open information from their leaders—they want to understand what is going on, how it’s being handled, and what they might reasonably expect. The same is true of community members. When dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in her district, Samantha Fuhrey, Superintendent of Newton County Schools, GA, said, “…because this is such a huge issue for communities, you have to be even more judicious about the things you say, how you say them, and the level of transparency you provide to your community.”  

“…because this is such a huge issue for communities, you have to be even more judicious about the things you say, how you say them, and the level of transparency you provide to your community.”

Samantha Fuhrey, Superintendent, Newton County Schools, GA

When a crisis forces schools to close for a period of time, It’s important to give some additional focus to connect with students. Some students receive the majority of their support and structure from school—losing that can be a significant struggle. “We know some of our students, the only structure they have is at school and the safest place they have is school,” said A. Katrise Perera, Superintendent of Gresham-Barlow School District, OR. Specifically reaching out by phone to individual students to check in with them can be a key to helping them stay on track and feel supported.  

Self-Care and Wellness

“You cannot serve from an empty vessel,” is oft-quoted wisdom from Eleanor Brown. It holds true in a time of crisis just as much as any other time. It can be even more difficult for leaders to take time for themselves when others are struggling, but it’s critical. Planning time to maintain physical, mental, and emotional health can cultivate strength and energy to continue leading through the entirety of a crisis and after it’s resolved.  

Deliberate Calm

Leaders can set the mood for their organization through choosing to remain calm during a crisis. Nobody wants to see insincere positivity, but a sense of calm is appreciated and helps everyone to feel like they can manage their way through things. Fuhrey received feedback during the COVID-19 crisis from one of her staff, “It helps us so much, in the moment of crisis when we all feel like the world is falling apart, we hear your voice and you are so calm.”  

A strategy that can help with this is following the 80-20 rule—instead of spending 80 percent of their time and energy dwelling on the problem, leaders can choose to focus 80 percent on the solution and 20 percent on the problem. “When you turn it around, you’ll likely find you’re less stressed and more productive,” advises Lolly Daskal, national bestselling author of The Leadership Gap

Growth Mindset

Times of crisis present a perfect opportunity to practice a growth mindset. Leaders should avoid worrying about doing things perfectly. They can focus instead on taking what comes and working through it, always reviewing what’s been done and how well it worked. Jason Glass, Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, CO spoke of their experience during the COVID-19 crisis, “We are in this cycle of implement, reflect, adapt, and repeat…”  

“We are in this cycle of implement, reflect, adapt, and repeat…”

Jason Glass, Superintedent, Jefferson County Schools, CO
Delegate

It can be easy for leaders to feel like they need to be at the center of everything and try to manage all facets of the situation, but different members of an organization have different areas of expertise. Sharing the load with others can ease stress and help things run smoothly. Hugo Bague, an executive at Rio Tinto during the Ebola crisis in 2015–16, experienced the value of seeking input from local teams who possessed a clearer view of the situation in their area. Giving local leaders autonomy helped them make the best decision in each circumstance.  

Nobody wants to lead through a crisis, but being ready to tackle the challenges that come with one is important for any leader. Staying focused on strategies that help an organization continue working together as a team, moving forward, and adapting as needed can help everyone work through tough circumstances in the best possible way.  

Do you have any additional strategies or tips that have helped you in a crisis?