How to lead through a crisis


Our leaders are under an unprecedented amount of sustained scrutiny. With COVID-19 our political and health leaders are in the spotlight 24/7, giving daily briefings, television and radio interviews.

We ask so much of our leaders in a crisis. We ask them to be constantly available, informed and up to date, and able to communicate their technical expertise into effective mass communications, replete with soundbites for clips and social media. Complex concepts around transmission, infection rates, treatment and vaccine development are now part and parcel of news bulletins and social media posts – going back-and-forth between experts and novices. 

Effective crisis leadership allows people to feel safe and empowered to do the critical work they need to do, and comfortable enough with the amount of uncertainty and change that goes with a crisis. Leading leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz writes that leadership, including in a time of crisis, “Is a razor’s edge because one has to oversee a sustained period of social disequilibrium during which people confront the contradictions in their lives and communities and adjust their values and behaviours to accommodate new realities” (Ronald Heifetz (1994) Leadership without easy answers).

These are significant challenges for leaders. It requires much more than business as usual. Leaders must talk to people, reassure them and guide them in action while the amount of uncertainty and change is very high. They must work to contain rising anxiety so people can bring their best to this difficult situation. It is about filtering distractions to ensure resources, structures and processes are in place to enable effective action, while being flexible and adaptive enough to accommodate constant change. To quote Heifetz again, leadership, including in a time of crisis, is essentially about, “Keeping the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing the necessary work”. 

These challenges are the same for all leaders in medicine; whether you are responsible for a large team in a major public hospital, or a very small number of staff in a general or private practice. So how can we do this most effectively? What does it mean to contain anxiety in order to do the necessary work as efficiently and effectively as possible? The following pointers are drawn from psychology, organisational behaviours and leadership and include behaviours and actions that leaders can enact. 

1. How do I feel?

We all experience emotions when bad news breaks and large-scale challenges unfold. Furthermore, stress and anxiety easily amplify emotions, especially fear and anger. Understanding our own feelings can help us get a handle on ourselves so we can be present and available to others. Leaders can’t lead if they don’t have a handle on their own emotions. So, a quick self-check-in (how am I feeling?) helps us identify our own response. It will also help us recognise similar and different feelings and responses in others. Understanding others’ responses helps us connect to others – so we can reach many people effectively in our communications and actions. 

2. Present as a strong and compassionate leader

How our leaders ‘show up’ matters. We watch them closely; body language, facial expressions and opening words are all observed and make an impression. This is so difficult for leaders and for many this public presence is well outside their comfort zone. It’s difficult because it requires the in-the-moment management of self and others and the need to deal with the frustration of not being able to communicate a message of certainty. 

3. Share information and expertise efficiently and consistently

Credible and reliable information and expertise is critical. Leaders must have constant access to accurate and up-to-date information and must share this with others, as well as the sources of information, providing public access where possible (for example, the WHO and DHHS websites have been widely shared in the public realm, plus frontline health workers will have more professionally aligned sources). 

How much information should be shared and to whom? Information is containing and empowering, when people feel informed and have consistent information that enables them and their organisation to work effectively. When people feel information is being withheld, trust is damaged and information may be obtained from alternative sources that are not consistent or credible. This is disempowering, causing problems for effective collaboration. In general, sharing information as widely and publicly as possible builds engaged and informed teams, organisations and communities. Work is required to keep people listening, even to the same message, but this work is important to stop people switching off and turning to less credible sources.

What about the challenges around managing bad news and information overload? Crises involve being the bearer of bad news, repeatedly. While it can feel tempting to keep bad news hidden or to leave out some details, leaders need to work hard to combat this bias. Telling the truth and being open and transparent is critical to building trust, and trust between leaders and their followers is critical to keeping people engaged and staying connected to the expert leaders and their communications about the crisis. Skilled leaders don’t hide bad news, they deliver it in a way that manages anxiety, as detailed above. Continuous information updates are also experienced differently to some extent – for some it is empowering, for others overwhelming. This is something leaders can acknowledge in their briefings and colleagues can support each other to find their comfort zone. 

Crafting an effective message for these situations can include:

4. Think and plan strategically and openly

Share with your colleagues the concrete actions that are being taken to solve problems. This will improve communication and reduce anxiety amongst staff. Everyone knows there are potentially huge problems coming, so they will feel comforted knowing the actions being taken to solve them. They don’t need all the details but just knowing helps. For example, you share what is being worked on right now and by whom. This step also includes being open about the level of uncertainty and ambiguity in this situation and saying that it is likely that plans and actions will change and evolve in response to new information and that is important.

When leaders share knowledge on strategic actions and decision-making, a greater shared understanding of what is happening exists in the workplace. People feel more confident knowing that something is happening – even if they don’t agree with it 100 per cent – as uncertainty leads to anxiety. 

These are the challenges of leading in VUCA environments – those that are Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Leaders need to lead in the moment, to take stock of the whole set of relevant factors, including those that have arisen suddenly and unpredictably, and make fast and effective decisions and include planning for changing and modifying actions on the run.

5. Support others by calling attention to the importance of personal and professional networks

In a crisis, everyone is being asked to do more with less. Part of the more is supporting yourself and others around you. This is a time to check-in with your colleagues, your team, your professional networks and being conscious about providing supportive resources. This is caring and compassionate leadership. Giving people the space to share their personal situations and be open about their needs helps people to stay at work across the long-term and small adjustments can help ensure that is possible.

These are five brief pointers that can be helpful. I don’t profess that any of the above encompasses all of what’s involved and important in crisis leadership, and neither do I suggest that they are easy. But I do hope they are helpful. Finally, writing this as someone who is not on the frontline, thank you to all of you who are. 

Dr Anna Clark, PhD 
Leadership consultant and coach

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