Crisis: The Dos and Don’ts for Leaders
The COVID pandemic has pushed leaders all over the world to respond to a crisis that has affected their families, businesses, churches, and governments. My leadership team and I had to contemplate closing down clinics and going virtual with most of our patient care. I have seen our revenue cut in more than half, and considered the prospect of laying people off. Our ER is seeing several sick COVID patients, many staff members who caught COVID, including one who seems to have suffered a stroke from its effects. We are not alone, our biggest competitor has shut down clinics and had lay offs as well. I have been in leadership since 2005, but have never faced so much impending disruption so quickly.
These recent events have pushed me to examine best practices for handling crises as a leader. Here are ten dos and don’ts I believe we must keep in mind.
- It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s not okay to be disengaged. It’s alright to tell your team, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” The foundation for healthy leadership is transparency and honesty. If you are uncertain, your people can tell, even if you pretend you are not. We saw this demonstrated live, as world leaders tried to reassure the public. But the reality is, no one knew, and we still don’t know a lot about COVID. If you don’t know which direction to lead people, is it better to say, “I know the way we should go; follow me,” and use your best hunch. Or, is it better to say, “I don’t know which way we should go, but I am working hard. I am on it 100%, and as soon as there is clarity, I will let you know.” Many times when faced with daunting challenges, our instinct is to distance ourselves mentally and disengage from the process. We may think, well, nobody knows, so who cares, or perhaps, no one can know in this situation, so I will wait until the dust settles. I believe leaders in crisis should not take a passive approach. They should work as hard as they have to in order to mine a glimmer of hope. If you are unsure where to lead your people, it does not mean that you are a bad leader. You are human; you cannot know everything. If you don’t know where to lead your people because you are disengaged and running away, that is neglect. My challenge to you is to face the crisis head on, confront the uncertainty, and make decisions that impact your team when you see the way, even if it’s only in part.
- It’s okay to be afraid. It’s not okay to give up. How do you effectively handle the emotion of fear as a leader? Does it mean you are weak or a poor leader if you are afraid? Absolutely not. Fear is natural when danger looms. It alerts us to protect ourselves from danger. If you are afraid, it’s okay. What is not okay, is to surrender to fear and give up. We must not give up trying to find solutions, and protecting our families, our teams, and our organizations. Emotional maturity means that we are aware of our emotions; we recognize them. In past instances I’ve had to stop and tell myself, you are actually afraid. When you are afraid, ignore the tendency to throw your hands up. Fight your way through whatever crisis may bring.
- It’s okay to work hard. It’s not okay to be unwell. As this crisis took shape, I started waking up at 4:00 AM to get ahead of the emails and messages and push some projects forward the best I could. Soon, I became unwell because of a lack of sleep. I had foggy thinking and fragile emotions because of it. I was not well. I also did not want to have my immunity decreased and be even more susceptible to COVID. So, I moved my wake up time to 5:00 AM, and that’s where I am now. I go to sleep around 10:00 PM. Seven hours of sleep is usually good for me, along with a 20 minute nap during the day. This worked for me and got me to a place where I have time to handle the crisis and be available to my team and others as I am needed. Leaders must work harder in crisis. That’s okay. It’s expected and needed most times. But crossing the boundary of hard work into being unwell is not healthy for anyone. I challenge you to examine yourself in this area.
- It’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s not okay to neglect strategic thinking. Another area that caught my attention is my feelings of overwhelm and my lack of ability to be strategic. This is unlike me. I am rarely overwhelmed, and it’s usually a personal strength of mine to be strategic. However, the nature of this extreme crisis lends itself to having so many arrows coming at you at once that you spend much time just fending off crisis and making decisions on the fly to prevent it all from falling down around you. That leaves little to no time to develop a strategy. So, we also have to be aware of these emotions and force ourselves to be strategic. What I mean by strategic is to think a few steps ahead. Think how the big picture fits in with your current scene. You may not have the luxury of taking half a day to think, but we must take 10-20 minutes daily to widen our view.
- It’s okay to communicate sporadically. It’s not okay to be unavailable. The standard advice is to over-communicate during crisis in order to reassure people and answer their questions. While it is a valid point, sometimes over-communicating when there is not further clarity to add may not be helpful; it could even be hurtful. People may think, “Instead of you telling me the same information again, or inaccurate information, why don’t you spend this time strategizing?” So the level and frequency of communication must be evaluated depending upon the situation. However, it is imperative for the leader to be available more than usual. Answer your calls. Answer your texts. Answer your emails. Don’t be absent during crisis. It is important for the team to know that their leader is working hard, engaged with their people, strategizing as much as possible, and being available when urgent issues arise. The way I have tried to accomplish this is by waking up early. I am notoriously bad about staying current on my emails. But during this crisis, I have tried to answer my emails every day early in the morning. I have also gone over all my text messages from the previous day to make sure I didn’t miss any.
- It’s okay to ask why God allowed this. It’s not okay to distrust Him. As a person of faith, it is important to me to connect with God in a time of crisis. We might not understand why things are happening, and that’s okay. However, as we see in the Holy Bible, the leaders of faith stuck by their beliefs in God and their assurance of His good character during times of dire crises. The challenge for me in this area is to continue making time to spend with God, even though every minute may be spoken for. I shared with my team last week my devotional habits during this season. Ten minutes daily. At the start of my day, I read, meditate on God’s Word, and pray. Ten minutes does not get me deep into a spiritual place, but it does set the tone for my day. Then I spend one hour with Him on the weekends to have a more of an intimate time reading my Bible, writing/journalling, and praying.
- It’s okay to lose money. It’s not okay to allow your finances to bleed out. We must act quickly to reduce losses. We have lost a lot of revenue during this crisis. Like most businesses, we are not immune. Our patient numbers have been cut in half. Our clinic services that bring in revenue have ceased. During crisis, losing money may be inevitable. However, we as leaders must be intentional to make hard decisions when needed in order to slow or stop the losses. Our tendency may be to ignore the pain and stick our head in the sand. Confront hard decisions that need to be made in order to sustain the organization. Healthy, strong leaders face the music. They charge the darkness. They do what needs to be done in order to reduce losses, regardless how emotionally painful it may be.
- It’s okay to lay people off. It’s not okay to avoid transparency. Laying people off—this is the hard stuff. These are people you have come to love, people you have built relationships and a vision with. Is it okay to let them go? Of course it is. Sure, it is hard, but when it must be done, then it must be done. Do it graciously. People will understand. What is not okay is to be vague, to hide, or to distort the truth. If there is danger to people’s jobs, you might consider saying it plainly. Our organization’s CEO and I have met daily since the COVID situation began (we used to meet once weekly) to formulate strategies about what to communicate and how to express it. We eventually announced something like, “I know that we are all afraid for our jobs. Our strategy to keep our jobs is A, B, C. We need everyone’s help to accomplish this if we are to weather this storm. Our priority is our people during this time. Please know that we are working very hard in the hopes that no one has to be laid off.”
- It’s okay to change the business model. It’s not okay to change the business values. This point and the last point get more challenging. You build your organization in a certain way, and you fall in love with it. You get used to it, and so does your team. A crisis comes and forces you to change it in significant ways. As leaders, we need to remember that’s okay. Actually, many times when leaders do not change the business model, they fail miserably. Think Blockbuster: either they couldn’t see the need, or they were unable to convert, to online programing. Subsequently, Netflix and other online movie providers sent them out of business. In medicine, we have been forced to take our practice online. It is a very different model. My 10 years of medical training and 15 years of practice had to be altered very quickly. Where is medicine going next? I don’t know. But I hope to do my part to open-mindedly consider different models that the pressures of the current crisis are demanding. What must not change however are our business values. A crisis can force you to change them if you are not careful. Will you be less than honest to make an extra buck so you can meet payroll? Will you be less than empowering, less than patient, or less than respectful of others? If we espouse high business values, then in crisis we must be careful to maintain them. My mentor, Dr. Albert Reyes, said recently that who you are in crisis is who you really are, in reference to leaders and people in general. I think the same is true when it comes to organizations. Who the organization is in crisis is who the organization really is.
- It’s okay to lose your business (or your job). It’s not okay avoid seeking opportunities in crisis. Finally, and maybe the most difficult prospect is potentially losing your organization, or your job, due to a crisis. Several medical facilities in our area have already gone out of business. Countless businesses nationwide and worldwide have had to shut their doors. Tens of millions of people around the world have lost their jobs. How must we approach that as leaders? Here is a truth. All businesses will end. All jobs will end. It’s a matter of when and how. Many people attach their identities to their jobs, or to the organizations where they work, or to companies they helped build. That’s okay, but when we forget that everything in life will end, even life itself, we set ourselves up for unhealthy disappointments. How many organization, companies, or churches have been around for more than 100 years? There are a handful, but only a handful. The same goes for jobs. How many people stay in the same job their entire career? Yes, we must have income, and that is a difficult reality especially during this time. However, beyond that, losing anything in life, personally or professionally, must not destroy us. On the other hand, during a crisis, there are usually hidden opportunities. I recently read about Charlies Darrow who lost his job during the Great Depression of 1929. He took his time to come up with the game we now know as Monopoly, patented it, and was soon selling 20,000 a year, becoming a millionaire. What opportunities might you see in this crisis?
I hope these ten guidelines will help you navigate the pandemic and other crises that may arise. I pray God’s best for you, your family, and your business in 2020.