At the end of 2019, the economy was wrapping up one of its best years on record.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, every state reported economic gains in the months before the pandemic hit. But things have changed dramatically since then.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, 43% of small businesses closed their doors. Some were temporary. Some became permanent. Those that remained open reduced their employment by 39%, on average. In a period of just two months, 36.5 million Americans lost their jobs. Numbers like this haven’t been seen since the Great Depression.

Being prepared is a hallmark trait of all great leaders, but many have been left to wonder how they could have ever prepared for what happened in 2020. And, as things continue to evolve, it’s all too easy for leaders to simply react, instead of thinking strategically about their next steps.

Even though this year has been extremely unique, leading through a crisis is an inevitability. Knowing how to prepare for a crisis and adapt to it at the moment is a critical skill for great leaders. And this has never been clearer than in 2020. This guide is dedicated to solving those challenges.

Table of Contents

Your team depends on your leadership in times of crisis. On this page, we’ll show you how to take action, prepare for rough roads, and see opportunities through uncertainty.

Why True Leadership Shows Up When The Heat Is On

On March 11th, 2020, the WHO officially changed the status of COVID-19 to a pandemic. That same day, the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, announced the suspension of the 2020 season. Silver was way ahead of his peers, but his decision likely prevented thousands of new infections and fatalities that would have resulted from crowds gathering for basketball games.

We always tell our clients that true leadership shows when the heat is on. It’s easy to say and do the right things when everything is going well — when money is coming in, customers are happy, and the future looks bright. But when things get rough, sticking to the right path isn’t so simple.

Crisis forces leaders to make difficult decisions that reflect their true values. When that happens, great leaders are…

  • Calm
  • Thoughtful
  • Invested in personal relationships

During a crisis, that investment in personal relationships manifests as empathy. With a solid team around them, and the reliability of a positive work culture, leaders have the resources necessary to go to the pressure.

Make It A Habit

Start off every day with 10 minutes of thoughtful planning and taking time to be present and thoughtfully engaged with those you lead. Addressing pressing issues in real time is a characteristic of great leadership.

Going to the Pressure

Going to the pressure is a reminder to regularly examine the challenges that exist within your organization. It allows you to handle issues from the beginning — before they have time to manifest into a real danger to your organization. There is no way to “outrun” issues. Things don’t magically just go away. Successful leaders take time to regularly assess problems and challenges and take action.

Challenges Blocking Leaders from Their Best

Imagine a burning building. Inside, there are people that need to be rescued. Outside, there are nearby properties that need to be protected.
When the fire department arrives, it’s not the chief who runs into the building to try and save a life or mans the hose to protect the other buildings. The chief is on the perimeter, overseeing the operation to ensure everyone is working together toward the safest ultimate outcome.
When great leaders stumble in crisis, it’s often because they are too willing to focus on the day-to-day tasks when they should establish boundaries, delegate tasks, and look to the future. Two of their biggest roadblocks are an inability to zoom out and avoid management tasks.

  • Zooming Out – Crisis presents leaders with immediate threats and long-term challenges. It’s your job to see the bigger picture and let others handle the immediate tasks at hand.
  • Avoiding Management – Leaders trying to zoom out to a wider perspective are often pulled back in by the temptation of managing urgent needs. You want to help put out today’s fires, but the reality is that’s a job for your team to do.You must tackle challenges head-on, but that doesn’t mean you solve every problem personally. Instead, it’s your job to build great teams you can trust, delegate tasks as necessary, and focus on the future.

How to Become a True Leader in Times of Crisis

In 2015, Volkswagen found itself in the middle of a massive scandal. The company had installed temporary devices to defraud EPA regulators. When the company’s leadership was questioned, they immediately began to blame rogue software engineers. Months later, it was discovered that they knew about the devices all along.

During a crisis, everyone’s attention turns to leadership to offer solutions and a path forward. But that doesn’t mean you only need to rise to the occasion in difficult times.

Truly great leadership is always being developed and improved upon. Crisis amplifies that development by calling on you to go to the pressure now, even when now is a chaotic environment. Why? Because chaos offers opportunities to those who are prepared and forces the unprepared to crumble.

In times of crisis, poor leaders will…

  • Blame others
  • Point fingers
  • Avoid decisions
  • Give up

You must clearly acknowledge the issues at hand, assess the situation, and address each challenge head-on.

Core Elements of Great Leadership

People often think leaders are naturally gifted, charismatic, and gregarious. True leaders do often have those personality traits but, more importantly, they combine it with:

  • An ability to create a vision and organize a plan to move forward.
  • Demonstrated compassion, kindness, and empathy for people at all levels of the organization.
  • Selflessness and a dedication to working through issues and celebrating wins as a team.

Here are five ways for you to inspire and engage team members in chaotic environments.

  • Speak the Truth — By receiving accurate information from you as their leader, especially in a challenging time, your team’s trust in you will grow.
  • Give Hope — Express a commitment to working on and developing a solution for addressing the current crisis to make “giving hope” tangible and real.
  • Listen to Hear & Involve — Being willing to listen shows caring and support for those affected. Along the way, there will be opportunities to include team members in solution-oriented conversations.
  • Chart a New Course — Crisis rarely resolves quickly. Leaders who show the way forward after having listened extensively, honestly, and hopefully, will make the very best of the situation and maintain the respect of those they lead.
  • Serve & Shine — When leaders serve and shine, a team’s trust in leadership grows. By speaking the truth, giving hope, listening and showing the way forward, they become a figure in which people have deep trust and to whom they have a deep commitment.

Turning these core elements into direct action requires an understanding that the manner in which team members will behave and perform when things are humming along will likely be quite different when challenging times arrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that in times of stress and challenge, leadership must express a message of caring and kindness. People are scared, uncertain, and frustrated. They need their basic needs met.

Taking time to listen to concerns and empathize will help both you and your team members deal more effectively with the realities of the crisis.

Connecting with teams to calm their anxieties makes it easier to deliver difficult messages when the time comes.

Read how one leadership all-star used these principles to turn around a failing payroll department.

Practical Tips for Improving Leadership Skills During Crises

Crises can shatter weak work cultures. No matter what crisis you’re facing, improving leadership demands a rebuilding culture.

Here are four practical ways to improve leadership and bring back an incredible working environment.

  • Focus on Positive Relationships — Positive relationships are the cornerstone of a great work culture. Pave the way for your post-crisis culture by approaching everything you do with a positive, empathetic, and supportive attitude.
  • Acknowledge the Harm — Pretending that everything is normal discredits people’s personal experiences. Recognize that things are hard in order to begin rebuilding trust with your teams.
  • Extend Grace to Your Employees — Extend abundant grace to employees so they feel trusted and supported as they wade through the difficulties of whatever crisis you’re in.
  • Practice Mindful Leadership — Adopt an open mind and reserve judgment until you have all relevant information.

Developing Empathy for Employees

Leaders do not treat empathy as a tool to break out when crisis occurs. Rather, it is an integral part of the way they interact with others.

“Empathy is not just when things are tough. Empathy is seeing someone’s potential and helping them go further. It is not just an expression but a genuine demonstration of awareness and love.”
— Tim Yeomans, Executive Vice President at FiredUp!

How to Express Empathy During a Crisis

Empathy encompasses the day-to-day investment you make in the well-being of your team members. It means creating and adhering to a set of values, investing in positive relationships so a strong sense of trust is established when a crisis does hit.

When hard times come, leaders express empathy by…

  • Letting the Numbers Wait — There’s no question your bottom line will suffer in a crisis, but your real investment is in your team, not your product or your service. Communicate empathetically before you tackle the hard numbers.
  • Showing Heart Early & Often — In a crisis like COVID-19, the focus cannot be on profits and margins. When the health and well-being of your team members and families are at stake, you must show compassion, sympathy, and caring. Combat uncertainty with support and fear with hope.
  • Getting a Second Pair of Eyes — Crisis breeds sensitivity. Ensure your communications are well-received by reviewing them with trusted colleagues.

Great leaders approach crises as opportunities to be beacons of hope. Through empathy, you can rise to the challenge, be clear and kind in your words, speak the truth, and prove yourself as an exceptional leader.

Using Empathy to Tackle Underperformance

Imagine a child who is bullied on their bus ride to and from school. They can’t focus when they get into the classroom, because all they can think about is how much they’re dreading the ride home.

In stressful circumstances, it’s understandable for your team members to lose focus, become disorganized, and lack direction. It makes sense, especially if a crisis has them worrying about their job security, their health, and the well-being of their families.

Your job as an effective leader is to use empathy to open direct, transparent communication with your teams and establish clear norms and values that dictate how they spend their time.

Here are four ways empathetic communication can battle underperformance:

  • It drives engagement by providing people with clear expectations, meaningful work, and accountability.
  • It creates a sense of shared ownership that engages individuals to work as a team toward unified outcomes.
  • It allows for flexibility, so leaders and teams can adapt to suit the unique needs, concerns, and opportunities of the existing crisis.

The most effective leaders are very clear about where everybody’s contributions reside and what the expectation of those contributions are so there’s no needless replication. There’s no loss of focus, there’s no wasted time. There’s no misalignment in timelines, all of which are critical in times of crisis.

Making the Most of an Unforeseen Situation

Throughout this section, we have talked about the need for leaders to develop their organization’s culture to weather the effects of a crisis. This practice not only prepares you to handle the stress of troubled times, but it reduces the potential for a crisis in the first place.

Leaders should recognize the difference between a crisis and an urgent matter. Crises are unforeseen developments that radically affect your ability to do business. Something that’s simply urgent falls within the realm of uncertainty that you have prepared for.

When you’ve worked to empower and engage team members, build positive relationships, and establish systems that serve, you can mitigate the possibility of a crisis ever developing.

But, no matter how prepared you are, a true crisis is inevitable. What you make of it as a leader is the real test.

Recognize the Opportunity to Improve

When people find themselves in a period of crisis, they instinctively return to the things that matter most to them. They reach out to family, they turn to acts of self-care, they take time for themselves. In short, they return to their most solid base of understanding, support, and care. An organization should act the same way.

Crisis is a time to return to your organization’s core values and long-term plans.

As a leader, once you recognize you are in a crisis, ask yourself these questions…

  • Are we honest with people about it?
  • Have we done everything we can to research it and understand what the dynamics are?
  • Have we thought about how the current crisis juxtaposes with the planning we’ve already done?
  • How would we modify our 30-, 60-, 90-day plans to suit?
  • How would we modify our three-, six- and nine-month plans?
  • How would we modify our plans for the next year, three years, five years?

Start from a place of empathy and understanding of your team members. From there, branch out and consider the opportunities that the crisis presents.

A few examples of crisis-specific opportunities include…

  • Improve Internal Capacity — When the horizon for your business is obscured by factors that feel out of your control, looking inward for improvement and efficiency can be a rewarding direction to focus your energy on as a leader.
  • Make It a Team Effort — Enlisting the help of team members to improve internal capacity builds inclusion, improves a sense of ownership, and focuses the efforts of teams so they’re more engaged and efficient.

Framing these opportunities as chances to build the capacity of teams turns stressful, critical moments into positive learning experiences at a time when people might otherwise feel paralyzed.

Using Empathy to Tackle Underperformance

Uncertainty is a breeding ground for speculation, rumor, and gossip. Leaders who do not make an early commitment to clearly communicate in the face of crisis risk alienating their organization and losing trust.

Consider these communication strategies whenever you face a crisis…

  • Make your message heard by utilizing all communication channels (email, print, in-person meetings, etc.) to their full potential.
  • Prevent gossip by communicating early and often.
  • Get the details right, avoid speculation, and be honest about what you may not know.
  • Focus on the future and how you see opportunities to improve in the midst of difficulty.

Many of these conversations will not be easy, but they’re necessary. And, there is a way to have them that will soften the edge. Always begin and end a difficult conversation on a positive note.

For example, if you’re having trouble with a team member, start by telling them how you appreciate their contributions. Lead into the difficult conversation with respect and clarity, and then end the meeting with a positive plan for the future.

Turn Difficult Conversations into Positive Practices: Lessons from COVID-19

When the coronavirus first turned most office spaces into ghost towns, it was hard to think about the benefits. But remember, a crisis can create as many opportunities as it takes away.

Here are a few COVID-inspired practices that actually improved the way many organizations function.

  • Committing to Positive Relationships — When the health and well-being of teams was threatened, coworkers became confidants, collaborators, and friends sticking together through the bond of difficult shared experiences.
  • Fostering Flexible Work — We’ve known for a long time that flexible work schedules are valued by employees. COVID proved it was possible, paving the way for a better work-life balance and lower overhead costs in the future.
  • Offering Abundant Grace — Organizations that couldn’t be together found new ways to connect, extended each other empathy, and moved forward united in new and inspiring ways.

Going back to work after COVID isn’t going to be easy, but with these practices in place, a new normal may be just what’s needed for a major boost to team member morale.

Two Examples of Leading in Times of Uncertainty

When times are tough, teams look to leaders as examples of how to move forward. In the same way, great leaders look to others for inspiration and guidance. Sometimes, the best way to learn is by watching others.

Let’s look at two inspiring examples of great leaders that went to the pressure in the middle of a crisis.

Lee Iacocca and Chrysler

In 1979, Chrysler was a dying car company. Oil shortages and interest rates were suffocating the American car company and most industry experts figured their final days were not far off. That’s when Lee Iacocca stepped in.

When Iacocca arrived, he partnered with dealers and made the controversial decision to ask for federal grants to save the company. And he did it with dogged persistence. People saw him pounding on the doors of Congress, doing everything he could to save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Thanks to his efforts, Chrysler got the funding it needed to stay alive, Iacooca saved over 500,000 jobs, and he led the company to its first profitable quarters in years — and all at a time when other American car makers were beginning to crumble.

Iacocca did what every great leader does in crisis mode. He went to the pressure, planned for the future, and used the opportunity of a born-again company to reinvent their offerings, including the introduction of a new fuel-efficient line of cars.

Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers

For decades, the Clemson Tigers football team was always second best. They paled in comparison to their rivals and were always second best. They had made it to a few bowl games, sometimes had a winning record, but were mostly forgettable.

Things changed in 2009 when Dabo Swinney was named head coach. He was an unlikely choice for a losing team in crisis. Just as unconventional was his approach.

Instead of just hammering plays, he made huge investments in players’ educational outcomes. The result was a team that gave Swinney more on the field, because he gave them more off the field.

Since Swinney took over, he has led the Tigers to two national championships. But, just as important, he has created a program where players who don’t make it to the NFL have opportunities beyond college. In a six-year period, only seven players failed to graduate. Now, Clemson is regarded as one of the top colleges in the country for prospective football players.


In every crisis, there is always a desire to simply know when it will end, to simply go back to normal.

With crisis comes fear, anxiety, panic, and a host of other negative traits. But the reality is that we are shaped by our struggles. Difficult times demand the very best of leaders, teams, and organizations. And it is when we operate at our very best that incredible things can happen.

In crisis…

  • Systems can improve
  • Team capacity can flourish
  • And creativity can ignite bigger, bolder ideas than ever before

In every crisis, you have two options. You can react, blame others, and isolate, or you can take charge, go to the pressure, exhibit empathy, and move forward in a new direction. Crisis offers a chance for cultural metamorphosis. Leaders need only trust in the process, remember their core values, and embrace the change.

When leaders view crisis as a chance for cultural metamorphosis, anything is possible.

Connect with us to get the support you need to lead your team – with or without a crisis.