The 5 Decisions Every Leader Must Make in a Crisis.

December 15, 2020

I’m on a bit of a roll talking about leadership.

A calling that leads to some form or title of leadership has always fascinated me, and the development of leaders has always been a concern of mine. So, you can imagine how much I’ve been thinking about that topic recently. Good, courageous, intelligent leadership is essential for the health and well-being of our nation…shoot, our world…like never before.

Is there a word stronger than essential? Because right now, we are in crisis.

Leaders always have the responsibility to help the people they lead to function effectively, safely and with cooperation in this world.  But in a crisis, the leader’s responsibility goes to a whole new level. When it hits the fan, all eyes turn to the leader, not just for guidance but for emotional clarification.

People want to know… “How should I feel right now?” “Are we safe?” “What does all this mean?” and “Can I trust you?” In a crisis, people watch every move of a leader and weigh every word. Some leaders who are not self-differentiated flail and fail. Others rise to the occasion and rally people through the storm.

A leader will successfully navigate a crisis if they choose to make these 5 key decisions.

  1. I will not panic

Good crisis managing leaders demonstrate a calm reassurance along with a steely determination.  I have been most impressed with Dr. Anthony Fauci during these past 9 months. I’m sure the man goes home at night, after being on dozens of news programs and leading a ridiculous number of meetings, and wants to curl up in a ball. He’s got feelings too. But on our behalf, he maintains dignity and resolve under pressure. I trust him and I tend to settle down as he talks.

Great leaders lower the anxiety in the room.

2. I will not shoot from the hip.

When the house is on fire, leaders must quickly, but thoroughly and accurately, define reality. In a crisis, people latch on to anything to help them define the moment, including unhelpful rumors and crackpot theories. On time, regular briefings by calm and determined leaders are an antidote to an epidemic of doom-scrolling.

Good crisis managers surround themselves with experts, not yes-men. They need to get smart real quick. They need the right data ASAP. People sniff out a leader who doesn’t know what they are talking about and confidence plummets. But leaders don’t just need to raise their IQ; they must deploy their EQ. They have to be able to read the room and sense the mood and understand the angst.

Some of the best leadership over the past 9 months has come from governors like ours here in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb, and New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. I certainly do not agree with every decision they have made, but I admire their daily and weekly press conferences full of information and concern.

Great leaders consistently exude knowledge and empathy.

  1. I will take personal responsibility.

In a crisis or a season of chronic anxiety, most people tend to blame shift. They try to find somebody to blame and then blame them. I get it, I do. It’s tempting to deflect criticism to somehow lessen the pressure, which can be debilitating.

In a disaster, critics of leaders say things they would never say normally. I’ll never forget the criticism I received when the church I was leading had to make some significant staff cuts. It was a crisis for our community and, of course, a number of people blamed me for it. You can only imagine the things said about me. The kicker being “you are going to be the next Jim Jones!” Wow. I sure wanted to point fingers and deflect blame! It was hard but necessary to take responsibility for the situation that was causing so much anger.

Great leaders own the situation.

  1. I will set aside my personal needs and desires.

Leaders can’t perpetually suspend their own needs and desires, but in crisis they must. The last thing people need is to see is their leader disengaged or oblivious.  Case in point: during this pandemic, several government leaders have been caught acting with shocking levels of hypocrisy. They have mandated wearing masks and not meeting in groups, and then went to dinners and gatherings, unmasked, with friends. Some pleaded with people to stay home at Thanksgiving, only to be found flying to join their relatives. In both of these cases I’m sure they needed the companionship of friends and family but in the end, it damaged their credibility and lessened their impact.

In a crisis, leaders arrive first and leave last. They set aside their own fears and anxiety to be strong for others. This is the moment in which leaders “lay down their lives” for their brothers and sisters.

Great leaders put others first.

  1. I will make the hard call.

To repeat, in crisis, people look for someone to blame. They herd with similarly aggrieved folks. And they display a hair trigger reactivity. All of this can feel threatening to leaders. When a leader has done their homework and considered the emotional state of their people, they usually know what needs to be done.

It’s announcing it and acting on it that can be problematic, because for the aforementioned reasons they know they will get shot at. They know too that the decisions they make will not just surface irritability in people, but also be costly for many.

For example. The decision to close businesses and schools during this COVID crisis has been devastating to many people. Many dreams have been crushed and children set back in their development as government leaders have mandated closures.  Again, I have not agreed with some of these leadership decisions, but I sure admire the fact that they pulled the trigger on what they knew might ultimately cost them their jobs in the next election. Conversely, I have been disturbed by other leaders not making the hard call for what seems to be politically nervous reasons.

Great leaders make tough decisions.

In a crisis, leaders will show the world whether they are just doing a job or living out a calling. If leadership, in any arena, is the summons on an individual’s life they will rise up to meet the challenge with determination and love.

I like this from Martin Luther King, Jr. (I’ve modified it a bit.) “The ultimate measure of a leader is not where they stand in the moments of comfort, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.”

Leaders, we need you now.


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