C-Suite Agenda

7 Hard-Hitting Tips for Effective Crisis Leadership

Oh, what a difference a few weeks makes!

In early March, most Americans were carrying on with their daily lives and work routines without inhibition. But within a few dramatic days, everything changed thanks to a single pathogen: COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Now, many folks are cooped up in their homes, patching into work or school virtually, and keeping their “social distance” from neighbors.

Yep, the times got crazy fast, and they continue to get crazier. It’s times like these that require true leadership to get through the madness and uncertainty. Crisis both tests and reveals leadership.

Rather than throw our hands up in resignation, we, CAPT John “Coach” Havlik, who led special operations teams during his 31-year naval career, and Bill Treasurer, author of five leadership books, have distilled our fifty years of collective leadership experience into seven hard-hitting tips for effective crisis leadership.

Don’t freak out. Leaders set the example and behavioral tone for everyone else. In times of crisis, leaders must be composed, resilient, and, most importantly, confident—the very things others may not be feeling themselves.

Check in. People are scared. Why wouldn’t they be? Ask others how they’re doing. Let your people know it’s normal to feel scared and uneasy when facing the unknown. Also, remind them to focus on the long-term. Pressing hardships always lift eventually.

Promote flexibility. In normal times, everyone needs to abide by the same operating principles. But exceptional times require, well, exceptions.

Yes, the team has work that’s got to get done. But a team member may also be caring for an aging mother who’s at a higher risk of catching the virus and suffering more severe consequences.

For team members with children, there are likely no childcare options, so they need to be home, too. Before this event, your workplace may not have allowed teleworking. Now it absolutely needs to be an option.

Give it to ‘em straight. One thing that hasn’t changed is people’s desire for honesty. Research has consistently shown that the number one attribute people desire in leaders is honesty.

This is even more true during times of crisis because honesty helps provide a sense of psychological structure. People would rather know that layoffs might be coming than find out abruptly. So, be truthful. Share the information you’ve got. And don’t sugarcoat it.

Develop a plan, communicate it, then execute it. Keep people informed, don’t speculate, and just state the facts. Let people know that plans will change as required to deter, and ultimately defeat, the virus’s spread. As we say above, people will respect (and want) a leader’s honesty.

Speak with a unified voice. Leadership teams in crisis must put aside differences, individual egos, and agendas and do what’s right for the masses. The absolute worst thing leaders can do in a crisis is show division…especially in public! People want to see their leaders unified and working together.

Give people hope. No matter how a crisis plays out, giving your people hope should be your primary goal. Leaders need to highlight any and all victories, however small they may be, rather than focus on the doom and gloom that lies ahead.

The bottom line: In a crisis, people need leaders—not politicians.

In closing, we believe that the COVID-19 crisis will be defeated, and the health officials and researchers who are working hard to find a vaccine will succeed. Until then, it will require patience, sacrifice, and teamwork. Follow the World Health Organization’s five steps to help prevent its spread:

1. HANDS: Wash them often.

2. ELBOW: Cough into it.

3. FACE: Don’t touch it.

4. FEET: Stay more than three feet from others.

5. FEEL SICK? Stay home.

Stay safe!


Written by Bill Treasurer and John Havlik.
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John Havlik
Captain John "Coach" Havlik, U.S. Navy SEAL (Retired), Special at Adviser Giant Leap Consulting, led special operations teams around the world during his 31-year naval career, including the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the SEAL’s most elite operational unit. He is co-author with Bill Treasurer of the new book The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance. John Havlik is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.