Everything changes in times of crisis. Leaders either step up and take action to return the company to order or crumble under pressure. Over the past few years, the public has seen leaders lash out during a crisis and continuously take steps that cause more damage, and leaders who did nothing and froze in fear.
From Silicon Valley scandals to environmental disasters, the public turned to these leaders and wondered why they did nothing or seemed to actively make the situation worse.
As a whole, we’re starting to realize how rare quality leaders are.
Leadership isn’t judged by a prominent job title or impressive salary, it’s judged by actions. Here are a few traits of leaders and ways employees can become leaders when a crisis strikes to help their co-workers, staff, and managers weather a turbulent time.
People Want Leaders Who Take Action
Before you can understand how to be a good leader, it helps to know what people look for in crisis leadership.
Organizational behavior researchers Hemant Kakkar and Niro Sivanathan studied how times of crisis and uncertainty affect the types of leaders voted into power. They noticed a trend where people with low levels of perceived control are more likely to choose dominant or aggressive leaders. In times of crisis, as when a country experiences a terrorist attack, people want leaders who promise to take control of the problem.
“The worldwide rise of dominant-authoritarian leaders is partly rooted in people’s psychological desire for restoring their sense of personal control, which is threatened in times of uncertainty,” they write.
People look to leaders who can provide solutions. This doesn’t mean that all leaders need to be aggressive and dominant, but it does mean they need to have a plan or at least be working toward one.
Anyone Can Be a Leader During a Crisis
During a crisis, people need time to process what’s going on before they can find solutions. Strong leaders seem to know what’s going on and can move quickly.
Lucien Canton, an emergency management consultant, says that humans still tap into primitive responses during crises. They instinctively freeze when faced with danger, making many seem dazed and confused when they’re initially trying to understand a problem. Once they overcome this first part, they can move toward gathering information and making decisions.
Unfortunately, Canton says, the time spent frozen varies by individual, which is why some leaders jump into action almost immediately while others seem to stay in place.
Even people who have never held leadership roles have likely experienced frozen panic, and most people have had to force themselves to snap out of it in order to spring into action.
“The chance of encountering some sort of emergency situation in our lifetime is guaranteed,” psychologist Jerry D. Smith Jr. explains. “How one responds or does not respond, may mean the difference in life or death to someone you care about or yourself. Most emergency situations will occur...where there is not a trained professional on hand.”
Smith reinforces the arguments that everyone has the chance to be a leader in a crisis. Even if you don’t have a formal job title giving you power in the company, you can still jump into action and take steps to improve the situation, while recruiting people to help you to a greater goal.
Employees Need to Trust Their Leaders
Leadership in times of crisis is rarely determined by job title. Instead, employees turn to the people they trust the most.
Todd De Voe, emergency management coordinator, emphasized the idea that a good leader can be good at managing people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that managers are automatically good leaders. Effective leaders are trusted by employees — and that trust is something that many managers lack.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed 33,000 respondents in 28 countries, found that only 37 percent of people think CEOs are trustworthy or credible. Called an “all-time low,” this is a drop of 12 points over the course of one year.
While that survey takes a high-level approach, looking at key institutions including government and NGOs, other studies have found that employees don’t even trust (or really like) their direct reports. A study by Ultimate Software found that 93 percent of the 2,000 respondents believe trust in their boss is essential to being satisfied with their work, but only 55 percent think their managers are transparent with them.
From high-level leaders to the boss two feet away, the American workforce doesn’t trust its leadership, which means they’re going to turn to people in the company who they do trust during a crisis.
Leaders Also Need to Trust Their Team Members
Trust is a two-way street. Not only do employees need to trust their leaders to make good decisions, but leaders need to have faith that their teams will follow their steps correctly.
“Leadership requires you to rely on someone else without threatening them or offering them rewards if they do what you want them to do,” Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap, writes. “You have to trust their instincts and trust yourself to put your faith in someone who isn't you.“
If micromanagers can’t trust employees to come to work on time or meet deadlines, how can they lead employees in a crisis? How can they trust their workers to complete the delicate tasks necessary to pull a company off of a cliff?
Good Leaders Have High Emotional Intelligence
Additionally, strength doesn’t always correlate with emotional intelligence, and leaders who can’t read people often struggle to motivate them.
“I call relationship management ‘friendliness with a purpose,’” Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes. “[It’s] the ability, through inspiring others, managing conflicts, fostering teamwork, and other competencies, to [move] people in the direction you desire.”
Relationship management is key when setting the tone of a crisis and determining how employees will react.
Margie Warrell, author of Make Your Mark, says that every workplace develops its own group emotion over time. Employees reflect this tone through their feelings and actions, which can either make a workplace healthier or more toxic. Quality leaders will notice this tone and take actions to direct it.
In some cases, this means working to instill hope or confidence in employees. At other times, it may mean calming people to reduce their anxiety levels. This requires high levels of emotional intelligence and awareness of their surroundings during turbulent times.
Simply put, your attitude either attracts people or repels them. Faisal Hoque, author of Everything Connects, admits that it’s hard to think positively during a crisis. He recommends using positive affirmations and focusing on what can be changed, not on what is out of your control. With these steps, you can work with people to take action and have patience with the steps they’re taking.
How You Communicate Says a Lot About Your Leadership
By tapping into relationship management, good leaders also make employees feel heard and value their emotions. This also ties into the importance of trust. Instead of expecting trust from team members, leaders can earn their trust through action.
For example, Chris Cebollero was in Ferguson, Missouri during the protests after Michael Brown’s death. The leadership specialist and author of Ultimate Leadership says he found himself leading emergency response teams to keep ambulances safe while treating injured citizens in the area. He says it was the ultimate test of his leadership skills. One of the biggest problems came when various agencies stopped communicating with each other and their teams. This created uncertainty and chaos as people tried to figure out what was going on.
“In a crisis, regardless of your information, plan on communicating with members of your team,” he writes. “When communication stops, people will create their own stories, come up with their own conclusions and create internal fears.”
Leadership expert Karen Mildenhall agrees. She says the best crisis leaders provide regular communication updates — even if there’s nothing to communicate at that time. Regular updates create one element of stability in an unstable situation and assure your team that you will provide them with news as soon as you have it. This communication builds trust and helps teams focus on the tasks at hand.
Listening is As Important as Communicating
Interestingly, the leaders who might be best at assuaging fears and finding solutions often aren’t the loudest ones.
“The art of listening is something that only experienced and well-trained crisis leaders do in the midst of an emergency,” Robert Burton writes at PreparedEx. “The ability to consume information at a rapid rate, and make decisions based on that information, is something that requires focus when listening to the details that a leader is being provided by his or her team.”
Burton knows what he’s talking about. In his career, he worked at the US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program as a crisis management consultant in Pakistan and Afghanistan, setting up negotiations between Pashtun tribal warlords and the UN.
Missing a few details because he didn’t pay attention would be a matter of life and death, and the same can be said about Cebollero’s situation in Ferguson. While the stakes might not be as high in your company, failure to listen could make the situation actively worse.
Leaders Learn From Emergencies for Better Future Responses
Every emergency is different, but most businesses experience similar crises throughout the years. By learning from each crisis situation, you can better lead your team through the next one.
Regina Phelps, founder of Emergency Management and Safety Solutions, explains that there are types of emergencies leaders are likely to face throughout their work life. These three include:
Routine emergencies, where managers can pull from past experience to quickly come up with solutions.
Crisis emergencies, where managers face a crisis they have never encountered before.
Emergent crises, where something that starts out as a routine emergency evolves into something more problematic.
While a routine emergency seems like an oxymoron, it’s simply a way of downplaying the stress level managers face. A product recall or employee quitting is something most managers have seen before, while a fire in the building qualifies as a crisis that would make almost any leader panic. It’s the latter emergency types that are the true tests of leadership.
Crises Are Opportunities to Grow
Once a crisis is over, quality leaders don’t look for blame or try to forget it. Instead, they use the crisis to learn and find ways to prevent it from happening again.
“Great leaders see a crisis as a good thing,” Eileen Burton writes at ProjectSmart. “It reveals their shortcomings and keys in on where improvements are needed...A crisis helps you groom your team and prepares your organization for a better future.”
So, an emerging crisis, like a backlog of customer complaints or high turnover rates, can be used by leaders to see the weak spots in their organizations. Good leaders will put out the immediate fire, but great leaders will take steps to prevent similar problems in the future.