Leading in Times of Crisis

You don’t have to be a first responder to be a leader in a crisis. There are many actions everyday people can during uncertain times to create stability for themselves and those around them, and two top suggestions include:

  • Slowing the velocity of change, and
  • Increasing clarity.

On April 2, 2020, I had the opportunity to interview Rob Glenn, experienced crisis responder and director of the National Business Emergency Operations Center at FEMA, about leading in times of crisis.

We began our conversation understanding how we know we’re in a crisis. In certain times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that we are in a global crisis. Other crises may not be so apparent or slow to emerge.

Rob recommended watching for key environmental indicators to understand whether or not you need to closely monitor your present situation. These indicators include:

  • Speed of information — is traffic to your phone or email increased beyond ‘normal’?
  • Ambiguity — are you experiencing greater uncertainty in decisions than typical due to rapidly changing conditions?
  • Community lifelines — are grocery stores selling out of key items? Are supply chains operating as normal?

If you observe significant changes in these indicators, it may be time to revisit your crisis response plan and ready your team. Here’s what Rob recommended about responding to emerging crises and buying more time for yourself, your team or your organization:

  1. Slow the velocity of change. Time is the most valuable asset in a crisis that can never be returned. As a team lead, accept that you’ll never have the time you want, but identify key steps to buy yourself more time to make better decisions. Within your team, set a tempo for regular updates. Manage your time to ensure you are using every minute to the fullest.
  2. Increase clarity. Ambiguity is a hallmark of a crisis; if the solution were clear, there would be an easy path forward. Leaders must outline a clear strategy with action steps to guide their team’s actions each day, each week and more. These may evolve as you observe changes within the environment, but the presence of a plan will keep your team focused on what they can do to support the organization.
  3. Capture team learnings. Stay connected to your team, and schedule a daily or weekly debrief to emphasize wins, communicate hope and identify opportunities to improve. Leaders who build this team learning into their standard crisis procedures increase their peoples’ ability to learn from one another and be more efficient.
  4. Lead with humility and humor. No one person has all the answers in times of crises. Accept that you will make mistakes, and be willing to laugh with your team. Doing your best to cut the stress with more ‘normal’ behaviors will put yourself and others at ease.

We finished our conversation discussing what leaders may do to build readiness across their organizations in times of normalcy. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Acknowledge that you will go through a crisis — whether relating people, technology, acts of nature, health and more.
  • Develop processes to make responses routine.
  • Complete “no notice” exercises to test your organization’s readiness and adaptability.
  • Assess your risk tolerance as an organization. Identify areas of vulnerability and implement strategies to address them (e.g., address supply chain vulnerabilities, build up cash reserves when possible).

You can view my entire interview with Rob Glenn here. View and register for our upcoming, free webinars at go.osu.edu/webinars.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.