Crisis Leadership: The COVID-19 Pandemic


To provide immediately actionable guidance so you can be an exceptional leader during times of heightened fear, pressure and uncertainty.

Goal A Crisis Requires a Leadership Change

  • A certain level of stress is expected at work. A crisis—such as a global pandemic—is above that level. A crisis is an exceptional time and leaders must forge an exceptional pathway.
  • Whatever we as leaders did routinely before, must be altered to both minimize the known challenges of stress and protect our enterprises from the particular threats of the external crisis.

Essential Pivots

  • Limit focus to what is most important rather than adding to prior workload.
  • Connect new asks with new facts/data so work changes make sense versus just appearing as ‘more.’
  • Increase empathy. Listen. Connect with feelings. Reveal more. Add mental health checks.
  • Shift vision from who we were pre-crisis to a better us post-crisis.

A Primer on Stress (the thing whose impacts we are seeking to minimize)

  • Stress is essentially emotional. We assess how we feel about something and our decision causes us stress. Our assessments are not rational.
  • We all have stress, but it is not universally about the same things in the same moment to the same degree.
  • Stress triggers fears of inadequacy.
  • Stress reduces rational thinking (as the brain focuses instead on fighting, fleeing or freezing) and increases ‘tribalism’ (when we are better served by integration).
  • We all have individual tendencies—e.g., coping mechanisms and over-reactions—that are not style-based or situation-based but derived from unique life stories. These tendencies bring varying levels of dysfunction to our current situation that are not changeable during times of high stress at work.

How Can Leaders Respond to Crisis-Level Stress?

First, know that a range of reactions is ‘normal’ when stress levels are elevated. The challenge is to pivot quickly to effective responses, such as:

    • Align early and often with your leadership on the most relevant crisis threats. Expect adjustments to what is considered the most important work. Encourage constructive challenge to both what and how much is on the list. Leave these discussions as one united team.
    • Change your leadership cadence (routines) to serve this moment better. Most importantly, what are new key topics for ‘status’ discussions. How will you be more accessible?
    • Amp up your self-care. Model the focus and calm you want to see. Rely on what is known to work: healthy-ish eating, adequate sleep, exercise, social support.
    • Do more resetting of priorities, communicating and reassuring than you have before. Go overboard. It’s not too much, not in a crisis.
    • Be more patient and accepting of existing flaws in yourself and others. Expect ‘tip overs’ and missteps. Aim for faster corrections.
    • Add more face-to-face contact (in person and remotely). In times of great uncertainty, people want to ‘see’ you.
    • Vent only where least destructive (i.e., not with your teams or those also shouldering heavier burdens such as family).
    • Be willing to initiate ‘recoveries’ of misalignments or short tempers regardless of who you think is at fault. True for work and home. Speak only to your 100% responsibility of any misstep.
    • Increase words of acknowledgment, praise and support. To others and yes, to yourself.
    • Lead with your superpower. We can’t be everything to everyone. Shine where you are naturally strong.
      • Right focus
      • Composure
      • Empathy and compassion
      • Optimism and resilience
      • Authenticity and honesty
      • Hope and courage
      • Perspective and sense of humor
Scroll to Top