How to Lead In a Crisis

Leading in crisis, Churchill

How to best lead in a crisis

It was my pleasure this week to speak to around 40 CEOs, founders of charities and other socially driven organisations, about leading in crisis. Everyone present was grappling with maintaining essential services in the light of COVID-19. The question we were discussing was:

“How do I help myself and my senior colleagues cope and prepare the organisation for what’s to come?”

Leading in crisis and making decisions under pressure are areas of real interest to me, particularly as I started my career as a Bomb Disposal Officer in the British Army and have subsequently led teams on operations around the world.

That experience has been formative in developing the planning and decision making approaches that I have used in further jobs within the commercial, charity and public sector. As well as continuing to have leadership responsibilities within various organisations, I now seek to share the knowledge I have through my work as a leadership coach and strategy consultant.

With government responses to COVID-19 resembling a wartime mentality, the immediate picture that comes to my mind is the poster ‘Keep calm and carry on’ and this theme prompted me to think of how we should ‘be’ in a crisis, particularly as a leader.

So here are ten things to think about that hopefully will be an encouragement to you and your team, particularly in this time of rapid change and uncertainty. 

1. Be the best leader you can be

Good leadership is always important, but it is critical in a time of crisis. People will look for direction. 

But this is not just for those who have ‘leader’ or ‘executive’ in our titles. Leadership is needed at every level and from everyone, to some degree. For example, some people will have to take on further responsibility as events stress existing structures or team members become ill. Equally, as teams are dispersed and communications strained, people need to be empowered to take the initiative and lead in their spheres of influence, even if that is just leading themselves effectively, having a good routine and remaining productive.

Therefore everyone should be ready to step up. As a leader, encourage your team to step up and empower them to do so.

You never know when you might have to take responsibility. I once had a situation when climbing in Alps, in a party of four, where someone else had been leading our team up a route. As we summited the mountain the weather changed and we found ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm. As lightening started to strike the peaks around us the person who had been leading the team was tired and became uncertain and I realised that I had energy and a plan, and therefore it was now an opportunity for me to step up and lead the team to safety.

We often think of leadership as a position but it actually more of a role. At different times we are called on to lead, no matter what our title. One of the key functions of a leader is developing the people around them, so here is an opportunity. Have a think; who around you can help and take on more leadership responsibility?

2. Be the calm

In the words of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic!

A crisis can throw us off balance, particularly if we have been dropped into a situation with new responsibilities. We can quickly feel way out of our depth. At those times start small and try to create calm in yourself so you can pass that to others. At times like these I remember the advice of Winston Churchill from his time leading in the trenches during the First World War:

“War is a game that is played with a smile. If you can’t smile, grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way till you can.”

Winston Churchill

Work on the smile but then aspire to do more than that; don’t just be calm, be the calm. Create the right atmosphere. Composing yourself and exuding calm will have a massively positive effect on those around you. Think about what people want of a leader in times of trouble. Be certainty in chaos. Be clarity in uncertainty. Be calm in the storm.

Fear is infectious. The panic buying of loo roll during the COVID-19 outbreak is a classic example of this. It defies logic. As a leader, your psychological state will have a massive effect on those around you. Find techniques to help you find that calm on a daily basis.

A couple of things that really help me are going for walks and writing notes or a journal. You can read further tips on these here:

The surprising power of going for a walk

Why journaling is important and how to start writing a journal

There are loads of other approaches you can use, from breathing techniques to mindfulness or talking regularly to a person you trust (yes, lean on your coach or mentor). Experiment and find out what works best for you.

3. Be a strategist

A strategy is a coherent approach to overcoming a challenge. You need an effective overarching strategy within which the detailed planning can be worked out.

For example the UK government strategy for COVID 19 is: CONTAIN, DELAY, RESEARCH, MITIGATE – very simple on the surface but with lots of complexity below that.

What is the strategy for how you are dealing with the crisis?

If you are wanting to develop a strategy you will need to do some good thinking and answer some key questions. There are lots of approaches to developing strategies and plans, and having a process to help you think coherently can be really useful. You may well already have systems or processes in your organisation but if not then I have developed a simple system dubbed ‘The Right Questions’ that can help you. You can read more about this here;

4. Be flexible

There is a military saying that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” meaning that no matter how well you plan, there will also be circumstances outside your control and outcomes that you wont be able to foresee. 

Therefore have a plan but remain flexible. Make sure your strategy is robust so that you can adjust the detail below it. The thinking that goes into the planning is at least as important as the plan itself, which leads onto another famous military saying:

“The importance is in the planning, not the plan.”


5. Be a decision maker.

I used to think that making good decisions was all about having a good process. I now know that having a good decision making process is important, but the most important thing is knowing your values. That is because is it essentially our values that drive our actions and behaviours, our conscious and unconscious decisions.

Times of crisis are times when our values are truly tested. When people feel insecure or threatened, their deepest priorities and ideals are laid bare. How are you and your team holding up? If you are seeing behaviours in yourself or your team that do not reflect your stated values then there is either something wrong with your actions or you have not correctly identified your core values.

Your values encompass your principles, priorities and passions. Once identified, it is best to communicate values as verbs or actions. Simon Sinek highlights this idea in his book ‘Start with Why’. He notes that if the value is ‘integrity’ then the behaviour is ‘doing the right thing’. Similarly the value of ‘innovation’ could be stated as ‘looking at a problem from a different angle’.

With values correctly articulated you can start to then build out your processes – your decision criteria, routines and protocols. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater and author of Principles has perhaps gone the furthest, as a leader and with his organisation, in systematically laying out his values and connecting his processes to them. If you have not read Principles then I highly recommend it.

6. Be a delegator

As a leader you cannot do everything or make every decision, particularly when the situation is fast moving. Therefore it is vital to give the key direction (strategy) and planning principles so that decision making can cascade down. 

In the military this concept is called ‘mission command’. The commander emphasises the specific mission to subordinates, communicates the desired end state and specifies any key tasks and constraints. Once this is done this allows the detailed planning and management of tasks to happen at the appropriate level.

As a starting point, as well as communicating our overall strategy, we can all make sure that we delegate effectively by using simple approaches such as the SMART tasks format, developed by George T Doran. You can read more about this tool with the following link:

7. Be a communicator

In a crisis people want direction. Therefore communicate clear and frequently but also be succinct.  There is a balance to strike too. Even in normal times we can be drowning in information so if you over communicate then people may miss the key message you wish to convey.

Even if you don’t have much to say, still communicate on a regular basis, be honest about what you don’t know but also be positive and encouraging. As we know in our personal lives, we don’t always want or need the answers, but we do want to feel supported and know that people care. Good messaging provides this assurance.

The COVID outbreak is forcing us to work and communicate in new ways. Here is an opportunity to find out what works best. Get suggestions from your team on how to communicate (think beyond email) and get feedback on your content. You can then refine your communication accordingly. 

Be creative and play to your strengths. Do you prefer speaking in person? Try recording a short video to share. Do you prefer something written? Craft something succinct that can be disseminated widely and easily shared on multiple platforms.

8. Be open to opportunity

It sounds counterintuitive, or maybe even crass, but don’t waste a good crisis. Any time of change brings opportunity and a crisis is a time of rapid, significant change.

As mentioned in the section on communication, a crisis forces changes in our work practice. This is an opportunity for innovation, for delegation, and new forms of collaboration. Even those once seen as competitors may become colleagues. If ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ then this is certainly the case with the COVID response. We are all in this together.

The SWOT Analysis is probably the best know tool for quickly and effectively doing some situational analysis. In the SWOT tool you consider your personal or organisational Strengths and Weaknesses (internal factors) as well as Opportunities and Threats (external factors). The reason why this is so effective is that these factors often mirror one another and by looking at the negatives you can gain insight into the positives. If you want to find out more about using the SWOT approach then you can use the link below:

9. Be resilient

Another military phrase for you: “Always have a reserve.” 

That holds true, be that In regard to money, supplies, people or your own personal energy supplies. If you are continuously running close to 100% on these things (and we can often be way beyond 100% when finance is involved) then you put yourself at risk when a crisis strikes.

You have to work out the right level of reserves to provide resilience in your organisation for each of these things but as a leader, resilience starts with you.

Here, a little bit of self-care can go a long way. Getting enough sleep, eating healthily and getting some exercise. And of all of these sleep is the most important, as it underpins our wellbeing. If you think you can get away with less than 7 hours sleep a night for long periods then I recommend you read ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew Walker.

I like to visual these aspects of my life, along with relationships and other things that feed into my wellbeing, as a dashboard where I monitor levels. 

Which gauges are on your dashboard and which ones are in the red?

Don’t let yourself burn out. I have been there and learnt lessons the hard way. You can read more of my lessons on this subject via the link below:

The truth about work-life balance

10. Be reflective

Finally, be reflective. In a fast moving situation you have to speed up your decision making cycle (think OODA loop) learn quickly from your mistakes, and make changes. That means taking the time to pause and reflect long enough to identify problems and implement improvements.

There will of course be time after the event for further reflection too. When a crisis dies down it is very easy to breathe a sigh of relief and then just get back to how things were before. We can all soon be consumed in busyness and lessons can be lost.

Therefore be proactive. Find ways of recording lessons now that you can return too when things calm down. Assign someone to champion this process and think ahead to a time that can be set in the diary to review what you have learnt.

Be encouraged!

Finally, please be encouraged! Leading in a crisis is tough, but you are not alone. Keep up the good work; keep calm and carry on!

If you would like to watch the recording of the original talk I gave then you can see it on YouTube here:

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