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Leading in a Crisis: Three Strategies

The voices of the worried ring in your ears, and the gazes of the unsure fall upon you.

You are a leader in a time of crisis.

Family members, employees, patients, students, or members of your congregation are seeking assurance and direction.

How do you know what to say or do? Who do you trust to enlighten you with facts? How will you harness your emotions and access your best thinking to become a beacon of clarity for the system you lead?

In short, how will you find the middle ground between hysteria and denial?

Here are three strategies for leading in a crisis:

1. Facts and Perspective

Assess any threat with facts and perspective. Is this a crisis or merely a challenge? Is this something your family or team can handle, or is your organization in genuine peril?

I define a crisis as a situation wherein wide-scale damage is likely without informed and decisive action. The damage might be environmental, economic, cultural, or human suffering.

In 1915 Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew found themselves stranded in Antarctica when their ship sunk. They faced sub-zero temperatures, dwindling food supplies, and no means of communicating with the outside world. That was a crisis. Genocide, slavery, abject poverty, and widespread natural disasters are obvious crisis examples.

Without question the COVID-19 virus is a crisis, but how serious will it turn out to be?

The privileges and relative safety of modern life have left many of us likely to misread an inconvenience as a crisis. That was yesterday. Today, who can completely trust their assessments when facing the unknowns of COVID-19?

Wise leaders respond warily to overreactions such as hoarding and dire predictions. At the same time, they guard against the overly optimistic dismissals of non-experts.

A leader in a complex situation like a global virus soon discovers that there is no one expert. A politician cannot instruct you on the nature of a virus, and an epidemiologist cannot tell you much about economic recovery. The most effective crisis leaders seem to be those who gather a room full of field-specific experts and know who to listen to about what.

2. Maturity

The most influential variable in any crisis is the emotional maturity of the leader.

Emotional maturity means taking responsibility for yourself and being reasonable about what you expect of others.

You can spot a mature leader by her clarity, and presence. She is one who stays calm when the system starts to wobble, who is able to calibrate a sequence of steps instead of impulsively jumping to action, and whose life habits produce sustained stamina for a long-haul crisis.

An emotionally mature leader puts the best interests of the group before status or notoriety.

Many of the leaders reading this blog initiated – with their families and constituents – a level-headed response to the worsening pandemic. They communicated and led. Their message included the presentation of the available facts and a well thought out plan for responding to the situation before them.

Hold in suspicion those leaders who are at the extremes:

  • The Narcissist who defaults to “me first” or “us first” impulses instead of informed understanding, and uses power to dominate rather than to wisely collaborate.

  • The Undisciplined Giver who is “all for others,” rushing in with boundless energy that is unsustainable and possibly misguided with no intelligent commitment to taking care of self.

3. Self-Care

Though part of emotional maturity, self-care deserves special mention. Most leaders I know want to be there for others. They want to listen and respond. They want to lock in the necessary adjustments to minimize disruption to their families and organizations.

But none of that can happen effectively without ample sleep, a calm mind, a healthy body, and meaningful relationships.

As the COVID-19 virus peaks, ask yourself:

“How can I guard against fuzzy thinking, low energy, and cynicism? What self-care routines help me bring my best thinking and presence to the interactions and decisions of every day?”

Three often-overlooked aspects of self-care become emotional buoys in a crisis:

First, find someone who will listen to you. If you are leading in a crisis, you are listening to others all day long – their venting, their requests, and their challenges. Who listens to you, your honest thoughts and feelings, your points of confusion and hesitation?

Second, do something for someone who’s in an adverse situation. I’m suggesting you do it for yourself. The purpose is to step out of your own small world and experience the joy of giving at a time when your perspective has narrowed. The profoundly human act of helping someone in real need – with a humble mindset – can expand and deepen your purpose in life.

Third, stay connected. Avoid the tendency to lead from a place of emotional isolation. Initiate connectivity with each of your family members and key work colleagues. But that’s not enough. Stay in touch with your own resource network – the people whose presence, humor, and caring contribute to your calmness, clarity, and perspective.

In a crisis like the current one, decisions happen under pressure, and leaders have to make those decisions.

This blog is your invitation to do what makes sense: Get the best information from field-specific experts, see the facts in perspective, bring emotional maturity to your interactions, and take care of yourself, so you can navigate you, your family and your team through this viral turbulence towards calmer waters.

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