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Leadership in a Crisis

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, March 11, 2020

the true test of your leadership skill is how you react in a crisis situation. and UNFORTUNATELY there WILL be no shortage of crises now or in the future.


We all remember where we were the morning of 9-11. I was in a meeting at our Avon, Massachusetts offices discussing a possible stock transaction with some investment bankers. As the unprecedented sequence of events unfolded, everyone including me was in a state of shock wondering what was really going on and what to do about it. At a moment like that, it's easy to get caught up in your own thoughts and forget about the critical role leaders play in crisis situations. And that's what happened to me. Our employees were looking for me, as the president of the company, to take control of the situation and acknowledge and address their fears about their own safety as well as the safety of their families. Regrettably I was unaware of this until later in the day and failed to quickly play the role I should I have played. It was an important lesson.


Whether it's an external crisis like the current spread of the coronavirus or an internal crisis like the loss of a major customer, the way a leader reacts can often determine the severity of any negative impact. And it also can determine how that leader will be perceived in the future. A crisis can raise a leader to greatness like Bob Iger at Disney or Mary Barra at General Motors. Or it can doom them to ignominy like Ken Lay at Enron or Jeff Immelt at GE. Here are some things about crisis leadership that I've learned over the years: 


Recognize Your Responsibility

Even if your management style is to hire great people and get out of their way, when things go wrong, it's the leader's job to take control. A crisis requires a rapid, big picture, coordinated response that only someone at the top can manage. You can delegate tasks but not overall direction. 


Get the Facts

Before you act, find out what's really going on. Understand both the situation and how your employees (and possibly their families) and customers are reacting to it. Listen to as many people as you can. You're going to have to deal with both the problem itself and possible fears and misconceptions. And it's important you are viewed as clearly up to speed and in control. 


Remain Positive and Confident

It's human nature that everyone watches the leader's behavior to determine how bad the situation is. In a crisis situation, the power of your every word and action is greatly amplified. You need to be the voice of calm and reason--even if you have to fake it. 


Manage Expectations with Honesty

But you've got to be straight with people when it comes to the facts. The quickest way to lose their trust is to say that things are better than they really are or provide incorrect information. 


Be Tolerant of Mistakes

In the chaos and confusion of a crisis, mistakes are inevitable--both for you and others in the organization. The worst thing a leader can do is create an atmosphere where people are afraid to make decisions or take action because of fear of repercussions. At times like this, your staff needs your full support.


Maintain a Long-Term View

When things are chaotic and the news is discouraging, the best medicine is reminding yourself and your employees of your mission and vision of the future--over and over again. Resume the discipline of evolutionary progress towards your corporate goals as quickly as you can. Setbacks usually seem worse than they really are and it's comforting to visualize how things will be once the crisis passes. 


Leverage the Opportunity to Improve

Crises have a way of exposing flaws—in processes, infrastructure, finances, culture, and people skills. This can be a good thing if you as a leader take advantage of the opportunity to make your organization stronger going forward. There are dramatic changes you would never dare make under normal conditions that would be accepted by everyone as necessary to prevent future crises from occurring. 


Next Steps

Airplane pilots carry a manual with a section of emergency procedures and checklists. To the extent you can, try to anticipate the kinds of disruptive things that can happen to your business and create at least rough action plans and checklists that can be implemented in different circumstances. In the initial fog of a crisis, this can help you react more quickly and appropriately. 


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Adler at


Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.


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