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  • Writer's picturePeter Sondergaard

10 Critical Leadership Skills in a Time of Crisis

One of my passions has always been observing leaders and how successful leaders react in situations of stress and crisis. While our current global situation is truly unique, there have been other situations in which I have been able to observe leaders under extreme pressure. And that has resulted in the following observations of desirable leadership skills, all of which we possess as leaders just have not, often been able to use. I am aware that this article will join a chorus of pieces that are right emerging regarding leadership during these times. However, I hope that you will find this valuable.

These leadership skills apply to any manager, irrespective of function, and at any level in the organization. Equally, the most critical leadership skills are those that are critical to the role you perform, whether you are Sales Manager, HR Analytics Manager, Application development manager, customer service manager, or any other managerial position. The skills below are then what I have observed in great managers during times of crisis or pressure. They are in no particular order:

Empathy: Put yourself in the situation of the person(s) to whom you are communicating. Whether it is your client, the people that work for you, suppliers you may work with, and the team you are on (meaning your peers). Show empathy for their situation. Be humble about the situation. Lead by example, even small things for certain people. The fact that you are trying will be appreciated now and later.

Truthfulness: In situations of crisis, you don’t know everything. Be clear about what you know AND what you don't know. It will become abundantly clear to everyone rapidly when you are making things up, and you will then lose trust. Be humble, transparent, and admit what you don't know. By doing so, you will allow everyone to understand the basis of the data and the fact-base of your decisions. Following up when more information or choices become available will be your next step.

Clarity: Being clear about your actions but through brevity, not using complicated language, and when in doubt about a binary decision, making a decision is often better than doing nothing. Clarity also means being clear about the objectives or plans for your situation. The plan or objectives subsequently need to be communicated and available to everyone. Equally, the timeline, or currently best-known timeline for your actions and strategies, need to be clear to everyone.

Prioritization: There will always be many great ideas and actions to take. If you try to do all of them, you will never achieve any of them. Prioritization is about getting to the few genuinely impactful actions that drive results within your selected timeframe. Prioritization also allows for more precise communication because the organization can only, on average, maintain a focus on no more than three priorities.

Risk mitigation: Constantly think about risk scenario’s but don’t let this slow down your decision making. Making a mental note of your risks, prioritizing them, and using them for every subsequent decision you make, will allow you to be agile but risk-aware. And where needed risk-averse.

Empowerment: It is critical to empower your team or organization. In a time of crisis, you should not take all decisions. While you are accountable, a distributed approach of empowerment allows for more rapid decision making and decisions that are in the context of the receiver. Understanding the positive impact of giving others accountability while you remain involved is critical in times of crisis.

Agility: Organizational agility is critical, and therefore as a leader, demonstrating the leadership skill of agility is paramount. Everything we have learned from the software development world of agile translates to business and is particularly important during times of crisis. You have to be agile in the way we make decisions. When you fail, and you recover fast. Where needed, you construct teams to work as multi-functional teams to solve problems that are small continuous weekly or even daily projects. And you plan to change rapidly based on new information. Constant change doesn't mean you don't need a plan; a plan is essential; you merely need to be ready to change that plan—display agile leadership.

Communication (storytelling): Communication is the most critical aspect of a crisis. Frequent, clear, and succinct communication is vital. Equally, the repetition of messages and usage to different channels of communication ensures everyone hears the message. Remember just because you heard it the first time you said it, doesn't mean the audience had the opportunity to listen to it the first time.

Execution: You have a requirement to execute. Assuming you have displayed all the attributes above, you still need to execute. To execute should be about what you do best, what you know. The reason you in the role you are in whether you are responsible for product, service, HR, Cash Management, Sales in a particular region, digital marketing, you name it, is to execute. So, execute for the near term with an understanding of the strategic scenarios of the long run.

Cost Management: Lastly is to understand cost management and, as importantly, the financial model of the organization. During a time of crisis, decisions need to consider the economic impact on the organization in both the short and long term. They equally need to be taken in the context of or at minimum recognition of the financial model of the organization. In my experience, the better managers and leaders understand the cost aspect of decisions, and the financial model of the organization, the better the decisions taken are.

There could be other leadership skills to include here. Still, these are, in my opinion, the most important ones for any situation of crisis, cost containment period, M&A, or other unusual business situations. As always, be relentless in your focus on your existing clients. They are the ones that will bring you through a crisis.

As you have read this list, you may conclude, "this describes how I act now. These are the skills I display now, all the time". If that is so, excellent - you are among a minority of great leaders. However, your responsibility then becomes to teach and coach others in your organization immediately. Organizations excel in handling a crisis not based on how one leader acts but how the collective of leaders across the organization acts. Display all of the skills above all the time; then organization stands a better chance of succeeding. Being a better teacher and coach is something we all can do better now.

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