Leadership During a Crisis

Article #9 in a series exploring the business world’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. This series was inspired by the America Reopens Handbook, which was created by the BizBreakthru team and is available to members

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Leadership is critical during a crisis. But which leadership traits are best suited for the task? In our last article, we explored at a very high level some leadership traits, and arranged them in a Venn diagram to show the overlap between leadership, management and performance.

Before we dive into crisis-specific traits, let’s look at the traits in the intersection of leadership and performance. They are, according to the authors we were reading:

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional resilience
  • Controlling
  • Displays emotion clearly
  • Calm

Though the authors of the study made no attempt to extend their model to crisis management, these five traits strike us as very relevant to leadership in a crisis.

Management consultancy McKinsey has identified five leadership traits that can serve specially well during a crisis. They argue that leaders do not need a predefined response plan during a crisis so much as a set of “behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead.” These behaviors and mindsets were:

During a crisis, the authors argue, leaders face “dueling impulses to conceive solutions based on what they’ve done previously and to make up new solutions without drawing on past lessons,” and need to find an approach that allows them to integrate both approaches into their decision making.

They suggest two specific behaviors (emphasis ours):

“Two cognitive behaviors can aid leaders as they assess and anticipate. One, called updating, involves revising ideas based on new information teams collect and knowledge they develop. The second, doubting, helps leaders consider ongoing and potential actions critically and decide whether they need to be modified, adopted, or discarded. Updating and doubting help leaders mediate their dueling impulses [and] bring their experiences to bear while accepting new insights as they emerge.”

Two other techniques discussed in the series that deserve additional attention are “displaying deliberate calm” and “bounded optimism,” described thusly:

“Crisis response leaders must be able to unify teams behind a single purpose and frame questions for them to investigate. The best will display several qualities. One is ‘deliberate calm,’ the ability to detach from a fraught situation and think clearly about how one will navigate it. Deliberate calm is most often found in well-grounded individuals who possess humility but not helplessness.

“Another important quality is ‘bounded optimism,’ or confidence combined with realism. Early in a crisis, if leaders display excessive confidence in spite of obviously difficult conditions, they can lose credibility. It is more effective for leaders to project confidence that the organization will find a way through its tough situation but also show that they recognize the crisis’s uncertainty and have begun to grapple with it by collecting more information. When the crisis has passed, then optimism will be more beneficial (and can be far less bounded).”

Perhaps most importantly, they argue (emphasis ours):

“Once leaders decide what to do, they must act with resolve. Visible decisiveness not only builds the organization’s confidence in leaders; it also motivates the network of teams to sustain its search for solutions to the challenges that the organization faces.”

Now we know how to act during a crisis. We can turn to what to say during a crisis next. When we return for our next article, we will discuss two basic rules for communicating during a crisis.

What do you think are the most important leadership traits during a crisis? Let us know! Share your comments below!


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