How Real Leaders Step Up to the Plate During a Crisis

The greatest leaders are forged in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Here are five ways to be that kind of leader.

You're reading this because you're a leader, but are you a fair-weather leader or one who can navigate the storm?

While some people may set out to be leaders early in life, most of us stumble into it. For many entrepreneurs, leadership is the last thing they have in mind when starting a business. Usually the focus is on a great idea or product. Having to run a business is just what you need to do to bring that idea to the market. Then you wake up to realization you are surrounded by people who are looking to you to lead.

It's a humbling and daunting position to be in. You didn't ask for it, you didn't prepare for it, and yet here you are.

Most of us learn how to be leaders on the job. However, in times of crisis many leaders find themselves unprepared to carry the mantle. Their first instinct is usually to be a cheerleader and reassure people that everything is going to be fine, or ignore the crisis in the hope that if they say nothing others will ignore it as well. But that's not honest. The truth is that in situations of high uncertainty nobody knows if everything will be all right.

In a time of crisis, you need to be deliberate and disciplined. Here are five things I've found to be the foundation of effective leadership in times of crisis.

1. Demonstrate calm.
A leader is constantly scrutinized for his or her behavior, but especially so in times of volatility and uncertainty. Your demeanor, vocabulary, even your posture are billboards that people will look to in order to decide how they should respond. Accept that your every behavior signals a message. If you need to give yourself a pep talk in private before facing people and breakdown when you're alone, then do it--whatever it takes to project the calm confidence that sets the standard for others to follow.

2. Listen to your team's concerns.
You don't need to solve everyone's problems. You can't. But what you can do is listen without judgment to people's concerns. Resist the temptation to come up with solutions. People need to be heard and validated. That doesn't mean you are endorsing their fears, but you do want to listen and acknowledge what they are feeling, whether it's scared or anxious. It's normal.

3. Repeat the concerns.
This one is tough for many leaders. A big part of the reason you are where you are is because you do not subscribe to conventional wisdom. You go were the risk is. It's in your nature. So, when you hear someone express concerns, you want to tell them why that's ridiculous. But before you can reassure them, you need to understand what brought them there to begin with. Something as simple as, "So, if I understand what you said, your concern is that ____________, right?" may be enough to do that.

4. Communicate honestly and authentically.
Once you've checked your emotional state of mind, signaled the right messages, listened and understood, it's time to communicate. Most people want to hear the truth delivered with confidence. Don't sugarcoat it, or attempt to be obtuse or overly verbose to soften or avoid the hard truth.

For example, you may start with this: "I get that you're scared. We don't know precisely what the next few months have in store for us. To say we did would be arrogant and incorrect. What I do know is that we are in a good position to weather the storm, if we get creative and stay focused. We will do our best. And I will personally be available to listen to your concerns and consider them in how we navigate this."

That's it. As things change, continue to communicate because in the vacuum of silence people form narratives of the worst possible outcomes.

5. Don't avoid hard decisions, but make them with compassion.
Lastly, every effective leader at some point has to make gut-wrenching decisions, the sort that wake you up from a sound sleep drenched in sweat. Accept that there are many occasions when you have no good options--your choices are between bad, awful, and horrible. In those cases, you have an obligation to your people and your business to be decisive but compassionate. I can tell you from experience that I have people who I've had to let go in hard times who have since become dear friends, not because they were let go, but because it was done with integrity, dignity, and compassion.

You may not have set out to be a leader during times of turmoil, but this is where circumstances have taken you. As the saying goes, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. it's how you navigate treacherous waters that determines what kind of leader you've become.