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Leading During Crisis

Andrew Grimm
By: Andrew Grimm Last Updated: June 14, 2022

There’s a phrase you’ll run into sometimes: “things happen." 

I believe the phrase doesn’t start with, “things," but whatever the phrase usually starts with…you get my meaning.

So, what do you do when “things” happen and you have to deliver news you just don’t want to deliver? Maybe a change happened in the organization, something that planned to go well did not, or there was a sudden economic downturn and hard choices suddenly have to be made and delivered?

We’ve been living in a time of excess, but trust me on this – those hard moments come back around, they always do. 

So, what do you do when “things” hit the fan and it’s time to earn that leadership chair you are in?

First, be available and honest about what is happening. 

Get up, visit the team, be around if they need you, answer questions, but be accessible. Dealing in times of uncertainty will be worse if you are walled up in your office – even if you are walled up trying to make it better. People need to know they can get you when they need you and that you won’t sugarcoat it when it matters. Tell them what they need to know. Don’t worry about the right thing to say or inspiring people, instead worry about the right thing to do.

Second, remember that in times of uncertainty people want you to be genuine, not flawless. 

The flawless leader is worried about image and liability, about controlling the narrative to control the outcome. The genuine leader is concerned about giving people what they need to overcome the moment. Being genuine means that you are honest about the challenge in front of the company and what it’s going to take from everyone to overcome it. 

Third, outthink fear. 

I’m talking about fear as a final item because fear is the mind-killer. We do a lot of stupid things when we’re afraid and you don’t often get a do-over, so let’s take fear apart and make it less frightening. 

The three fear responses I’ll discuss today are fight, flight, and freeze. 

I’ve said in other articles that behind anger is fear and behind fear is uncertainty. Don’t make the mistake of showing people your fear, that won’t help them – it’ll just create more fear. They are looking to you for calm, rational guidance. Breathe. Think. How will you help the organization and those you represent the best? What needs to happen next? Now, what needs to happen next?

Organizations in crisis find out who their loyalists are because of flight. Organizational crisis could put you and your family at risk, it makes sense to consider flight. This mentality will rob you from being present in the moment. The last time I left an organization, I focused on the crisis in front of me first. When I was through it and still believed departure was the only course then, and only then, I made a plan and left. To navigate a crisis well, you have to be committed to the crisis. You can’t help others navigate it while you are planning your exit. 

Freeze is an unfortunate thing most professionals have done at least once. Freeze, usually driven by anxiety, is said to be the brain’s response to avoid detection from predators by holding very still – like fight or flight, it's instinctual and not based on logic. 

Take a deep breath, count to five, and repeat it a few times. Pick up something and focus on how it feels. Remind yourself what you are here to do and that you can indeed do it. Freezing happens. If you can treat it as a pause using basic techniques then it can be just that – a moment to think and move on. 

More than anything, remember that an organizational crisis is an opportunity to help others and lead. We hope to encounter very few of these moments, but they happen. The people around you deserve a leader able to rise above instinct to thoughtful clarity. 

You can do it; I believe in you.