Crisis Leadership Done the Right Way

Oct 14, 2020 6 Min Read
crisis leadership
By focusing on what is in your control, it grounds you and wakes you up to real possibilities that can get things moving in the right direction.

Back to square one?

As Malaysians wrap our heads around the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, many people will be looking to leadership across all levels for clear communication, guidance, and direction.

Malaysia has been recognised as a leading nation in our handling of the COVID-19 crisis, with efforts led admirably by Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah who has steered a steady ship through turbulent waters since the outbreak earlier this year.

Despite his warning that a third wave was likely, he assured us that the MOH was "better prepared to deal with the pandemic than when it first struck, in terms of mobilisation of personnel, and the number of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators."

In any national or global crisis, we all have a part to play. As a business leader, clarity, compassion and connection are crucial qualities that enable people to feel heard, supported and anchored at a time when many concerns and questions arise over the coming weeks and months.

It's important to know that while this is a serious situation we find ourselves in, it is manageable if we work together to adhere to health and safety measures while seeing to our daily commitments. As well as practising good hygiene, leaders should also encourage their teams to avoid sharing news that might be inaccurate, or fixating on the 24/7 news cycle that can cause added stress. It's important to be informed, but it's helpful to avoid checking news reports constantly. Of course, make sure that any news that is being shared comes from reliable sources.

The dilemma of crisis leadership

Leading a team or an organisation during times of uncertainty can be extremely challenging, but with some careful consideration and strategic planning, challenges can be dealt with and overcome when everyone is sure of their role, what's expected, and how leaders plan to move forward.

While Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and his team work tirelessly to contain the rise of fresh cases, business leaders will be playing their part by making decisions that help the process of containment, keeping their people safe and protected.

Here are a few considerations that can help leaders prepare for key decisions in the near future:

1. Focus on what's within your control, not what's outside it 

When facing uncertainty, it's tempting to focus on all the negative possible outcomes: all the resources you need (but don't have), all the extra clients you need (but don't have), and everything else that makes for a difficult period. This can lead to inaction, lined with enough negativity that keeps everyone in a state of inertia. 

By focusing on what is in your control, it grounds you and wakes you up to real possibilities that can get things moving in the right direction. A key part of leadership has always been the ability to keep moving forward in the face of adversity. It doesn't matter how quickly you progress, only that you find ways to keep the progress going.

2. Strategise and prepare 

The phrase ‘future-proof’ is sometimes misunderstood to mean ‘ready for anything’. Of course, COVID-19 shattered any illusion that we can be absolutely prepared for the future. Instead, future-proofing describes the process of ‘anticipating the future and developing methods of minimising the effects of shocks and stresses of future events’. 

In other words, it pays to plan properly

As a leader, what do you know about the current situation? How might it impact your business? What options are there to mitigate potential challenges you can see? What can you do today to begin preparing everyone to be ready for change?

Even if you can't yet fully see the bigger picture, you can make educated guesses as to how it might look and work with your team to put measures in place that will help the business adapt quickly to a new landscape whenever it unfolds.

3. Keep on top of new information 

A common mistake leaders make during tough times is reacting to information after the fact. They find themselves a few steps behind where they should be while those around them ask for direction and find their leaders lacking in clear guidance. 

In times of crisis, it's vital that you stay on top of new information as it happens. Better still, when an announcement or impending policy is likely to go only two or three ways, it's helpful to be aware of potential outcomes and prepare courses of action that are ready to go as soon as the outcome is known. 

If you and your team are constantly playing catch-up, being in survival mode increases the likelihood of making the wrong decisions. Having as much information to hand as you navigate challenges makes it easier to set the right course that gains people's buy-in and confidence as a result.

4. Make use of other people's strengths 

As Steve Jobs put it, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

As a leader, there's never a time when your strengths amount to everyone else's in the room. In a crisis, it's not enough to realise this truth in the service of false humility – you have to act on it. If something needs doing and someone has better skills or a greater understanding than you and your leadership team, tap into that person's strengths and invite them to be an active part of the solution. 

George Washington made great use of his much younger aide, Alexander Hamilton, whose crisp and clear communication skills greatly advanced efforts to win the American Revolution. As Steve Jobs put it, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

5. Be visible and open 

Naturally, people are worried in times of crisis. What's going on? Are their jobs safe? Are they and their families safe? What will the coming weeks and months look like? How will the company adapt to new circumstances? 

In leadership, the instinctual reaction for some is to concentrate on the bottom line. It makes sense: if there's less revenue coming in, there's a possibility that jobs will need to be cut. And so you might close yourself off and pour all your energies into practical solutions that sustain the business. Resist this.

Finding solutions is important, but don't become so fixated that you lose sight of your people. They are the ones who will keep your business going and drive it forward, and they'll feel much more secure, engaged and willing to do that if they can see that their leader cares and is available. 

If you want your team's loyalty, support and commitment, you have to demonstrate those qualities first and be consistent. People aren't cogs in a machine; they're people. Listen to their concerns, show up, be available – and do what's necessary to equip them with whatever they need to get the job done well.

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Tags: Executing Leadership


Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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