Leadership Survival in a Crisis

Michael Wader - Professional Leadership Speaker

Currently, we are living in a time in history when “competent leaders” are desperately needed.

Are you one of them?

When crisis occur, how you respond, separates the Leaders from the followers.

— Michael Wader

Today there is a problem that is attacking multiple countries and causing potential devastation for local and national governments, companies, and institutions all over our world. The way our leaders handle this challenge will become their legacy. It will also have a lasting effect on millions of people around the world.

I have been through hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, sandstorms, earthquakes and war. I have seen competent and incompetent leaders respond to the demands of the situation they found themselves in as “the leader”. If you were the leader with a crisis happening on your watch, what would you do?”

In the face of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill became the Leader that got it right, and it became his legacy. Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” He was never lost for words of encouragement and he was forever out front leading his country and telling them to never, never give up.

When 911 occurred on Rudi Giuliani’s watch, he went to ground-zero as soon as possible, and his action became his legacy. The former New Your City Mayor stated, “it is in times of crisis that good Leaders emerge.” He never sidestepped his responsibilities and became an example of quick, competent actions in the face of a disaster. Some historical leaders knew what to do in the face of chaos, and some who shirked their responsibilities and their governments and organizations suffered.

Now the corona virus has joined a history of threatening events that have changed the way we do work and how we lead our governments, private and commercial organizations, and institutions. Leaders need a set of skills and competencies that will allow them to steer our ship across the turbulent waters and rebuild with the strength to face future, possible chaos.

Appointed leaders need to have the capacity to quickly assemble a team of professionals to help address threatening issues within their organizations. There will be no time for training competent skills then, and it should have been done before. These skills will address the chaos head-on and become an example for future leaders. The Leader’s team membership should be based on who can best fulfill the roles and not just the people currently holding the positions.

The Leader needs to pause and reflect on what happened to gain his or her composure while his team is assembled. Then together, without outside interference, they need to ask some “critical questions”:

  1. Has the threat reached any of our employees or members of our organization?
  2. How can we immediately protect those employees or citizens that the danger has not reached yet?
  3. Can we clearly identify the threat that is approaching, or the cause of the event if it already occurred?
  4. Does the Leader and his team have the authority to make changes, and what are the parameters for making those changes?
  5. Have we established communications with the workers or citizens we are responsible for helping?

Those are the questions that most disaster response teams are taught to ask within the first meeting of the response team getting together. During my 26 years in the USAF, I lived through many possible life-threatening situations and the time leaders had to respond was different. For hurricanes and typhoons we had time to prepare and evacuate. In tornadoes and sandstorms we got very little time to prepare and sheltered in place. For the earthquakes there was no time to prepare. We were expected to take the actions of a competent leader, jointly and individually, and respond as quickly as possible. In the military, we learned to acknowledge and assess the damage, search for survivors, and then figure out how to prevent more casualties. Often the events happen all too fast and there is little time for training for lengthy discussions. Leaders are taught to act competently in these situations, securing the area where people would still be safe, and then figure out how to get everyone effectively working towards recovery of our operations. If you are the Leader of a multi-national company, a large national company, or the owner of an SME (small-medium-enterprise), you need to think the same way. Only the size of your actions will be different. All of your employees or citizens, 100 or 100,000 or millions, are looking for you to take the lead and protect their families and their jobs.

If threatening events occur the Leader’s immediate actions should be:

  • Acknowledge the facts of what is happening or has occurred
  • Be visible, stand up and be seen by everyone
  • Communicate to the populace or employees your short-term strategy for recovery
  • Demonstrate your eternal optimism and empathy for the people suffering


The competencies you need as the Leader of your organization listed here, and the order you do them will depend on the specific threat:

1. The Leader must stay focused on the goal… worker’s welfare and the long term survival of the organization require the Leader to have empathy for everyone in the company.

2. The Leader must lead by example… be visible, lead the effort to stay in communications with all of the employees or citizens to keep them up-to-date on how to remain safe or how to get the help they may need.

3. The Leader must have transparent integrity… be honest with the entire organization and become the filter for the truth to kept out false information.

4. The Leader must have resilient resourcefulness… bring together all of the organization’s resources in order to maintain peace, welfare and to keep company operations running. Ask everyone to help.

5. The Leader is ultimately responsible for decision making… work with the sub-leaders who will have authority for each of their geographically separated units or teams. Data may be harder to collect, but combining data and empathy is still the best way to make difficult decisions. When questioned remember to speak with data and with your heart, that is the signature of a competent leader.

These five competencies are not new. But today, there are new technologies that make them happen faster, and that can be both good and bad. The wrong information sent out quickly may compound the chaos. Quick but considered judgement is the key skill for the Leader who steps forward in these situations. Understanding and knowing how to execute these five competencies will have a lasting and dynamic effect on the legacy of a leader.

“The true test of Leadership is how well you function in a crisis.”

— Brian Tracy

1. Focus on the goals of your workforce or citizens? The historical leaders that we respect responded with empathy in the face of chaos. He or she put themselves into the shoes of their workers or citizens to understand what was needed. The basic fundamentals of health, safety, shelter, are primary to understanding our workers’ needs. For many, this also includes continued work and constant income. The feeling of belonging and being part of a group or company also need to be addressed. Many of these issues fall under the next 4 competencies, but empathy will be required to understand them first before we can respond to them. The Leader must demonstrate that he or she is focused on the goals of the workers as well as the company. If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the process. They will continue to support the company’s goals as long as they know their needs are being met.

2. Lead by example. To maintain stability for the company or organization the Leader needs to be the visible Leader as soon as possible after the chaos starts, and as long as it remains a threat. The people are looking for someone to take charge and let them know what is going on. The Leader needs to be the eternal optimist in the face of catastrophic circumstances and promise that there will be a tomorrow for everyone. That may be hard for the Leader when face to face with human calamity. A company-wide podcast or broadcast by email starts the initial contact with all employees or citizens. Provide hotlines to call for the workers if they need support. If communications are cut off or limited, go out to their homes to check on them or to provide transportation to work if that is the plan. The Leader needs to be actively involved in the direct contact with the workers and their recovery. The Leader’s place is out front and at the head of the action to prevent the chaos, or recover from the disorder. First responders and recovery teams are important, but most of the workers or citizens want to know that the Leader understands their situation by being in the action.

3. The Leader needs to have transparent integrity and tell the truth. Establish a communications line and a schedule for communication times. If the workers are still coming to work, hold daily or weekly town-hall meetings with them to answer questions and clear up rumors. Share stories of how some workers have recovered and what will be done for the rest of them in time. If the company is going to take a financial loss, let the people know your plan of how this will be recovered. If the loss is shared by all, including the Leader, ask what ideas do the workers have to minimize this loss? Often when the workers know the Leader is honestly sharing in the hard times, they will volunteer ideas that may help to minimize everyone’s loss.

“If you don’t choose to do it in Leadership time up front, you do it in crisis management time down the road.”

— Stephen Covey

4. These ideas can help the resilient resourcefulness that is needed in these chaotic times. In order to complete production to meet the continuing customer needs, or provide the reduced but uninterrupted services, workers who provide the hands on work everyday are in the best position to recommend changes. Leaders have the authority to implement these changes and can speed up the approval process. In the case of the current chaos, many office or administrative workers can do their work from home or remotely.

Many people all over the world are already working from home at regular times. There are many lessons we have learned in the last ten years about working from home or remotely. The Leader will have to be aware of the pitfalls of this remote work. Some remote workers feel left out of decisions made at the company. Some of them have outdated or minimal performing devices and not able to comply with normal demands from their locations. Leaders will have to spend extra time staying in touch with these remote workers to ensure they still feel part of the company and have a voice in decisions made. Again, empathy is important, and putting yourself in their position exposes many of these problems that can be resolved with cooperation. Today’s Leader considering this action must remember a lack of close contact with people inhibits the formation of trust, personal connection, and mutual purpose. This may be a way of work in the future for your organization and this may be a good test bed for those changes.

5. The Leader is ultimately responsible for decision making and working with the sub-leaders who will coordinate efforts for each of their geographically separated units or teams. Making Data Based Decisions during turbulent times will help the needed changes in progress to not swing like a dog’s tail. Making decisions to solve other people’s problems during chaos often takes up a lot of time for the Leader. If decisions are made on rumors or unsubstantiated data additional harm may be caused. The decision to give the Leader the authority to change procedures for solving problems during chaotic times should have been done before the chaos started. If it was not done, do it now.

Conclusion: If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the process!

As the Leader, you will need to make some tough decisions, and it is recommended that you use two sources for those decisions; 1. Data based facts and 2. Your heart and the knowledge of knowing what is “the right thing to do.” Remember, if you take care of the people, the people will take care of the process (company).

Leadership’s role within an organization becomes more critical during chaotic times. To lead an organization out of turmoil, the Leader must have confidence in his or her competencies. Today’s leaders need to understand and use the powers assigned to them as leaders and apply them with empathy for the less fortunate members of their organization. If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the process. Harnessing the power of good workers who were taken care of by a competent leader during a distressing period can propel an organization to a quicker recovery, and maybe a better future.

“The way you respond to this crisis will impact your organization and the people who work there, what “positive actions” are you going to take?”

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