C-Suite AdvisoryChief Executive Insights

Crisis Leadership During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging leaders worldwide in ways most have never experienced. The health of your employees and their families is threatened. You are experiencing an extreme range of challenges. Some of you are under government orders to close or demand for your products has disappeared. For others, demand for your products and services has escalated under changing and conflicting requirements. Danger to everyone on your team is real and fear is widespread.

These leadership principles may help you through this crisis.

No One Has the Right Answer

No one knows with clarity what will happen or what to do. The scope of the health, financial, and political challenges and their implications for your company are not known and cannot be known with any certainty.

Whatever you do will be based on incomplete and often wrong information about what is happening and what will happen.

Be brutally honest about what is happening. Offer realistic hope – bounded optimism.

Manage the Process

Manage the process of solving the problem. Do not try to “solve the problem” you do not understand.

Establish a process of discovery. What is happening? What will happen? What are the greatest risks to the team and to the company? What do you have to do to survive this week, this month, this year?

Anticipate the future. What will be the primary challenge in a week, a month, a year. How will the crisis impact your customers and your suppliers. Will you have cash to survive?

Establish a fast learning process. What must you know to act and to survive? How can you get information you need to act? What initiatives or experiments can you try without significant new risk?

Plans and goals are history. What is the new plan?

Establish a crisis team – This could be a network of teams dealing with different elements of the crisis. Delegate decisions to the team wherever possible. Prioritize.

Make decisions. Make them with the understanding that you do not fully understand the problem or the solution. Many early decisions will be wrong. Learn and move on.

Make short term decisions. Delay long term commitments. If possible, delay decisions with fundamental, long term implications for the company. You have limited insight into how the company’s challenges will develop.

Create an employee community of purpose. Your employees will fear for their safety and their jobs. Be clear what you are doing for them and what they must do for each other. Convey a vision of their role, as a team, during the crisis.


Communicate frequently. Your employees, your customers, your suppliers, and your community need and want to hear from you.

Clearly and simply, say what you know and only what you know.

Acknowledge that you do not fully understand what is happening and what will happen. Acknowledge that you do not have completely accurate information and the best responses to the crisis are not clear. As better information becomes available, the company’s plans may change.

Outline decisions you have made and actions you are taking

Directly deal with fear – with the personal experience everyone is having.

Manage Yourself

You will be overwhelmed by demands from others and demands you place on yourself. Fear, anxiety, confusion, uncertainty, dread, and exhaustion will be with you.

Be decisive – make decisions – while recognizing that some decisions will be wrong. Adjust and change quickly as you learn more.

More will be on your plate than you can handle. For the company to survive, decide what decisions and actions only you can do. Delegate everything else.

Force yourself to pause – to go slow. Collect available information. Learn from what you know. Develop options. Anticipate what is likely to happen.

Do not wait for certainty. Decide. Learn. Repeat.

You are the leader. Your team looks to you for guidance on their place in the COVID-19 crisis and how they should feel about themselves and the company. Create a realistic vision of the future. Acknowledge your fears. Call on your inner strength of resilience, determination, perseverance, grit, hard realism, and optimism.

Written by Rick Williams. Have you read?
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Rick Williams
Rick Williams is Managing Director of Williams Advisory Partners, LLC. He has a breadth of experience as an executive and board director for technology companies including medical technology, software, and financial services. Rick is a nationally published thought leader. His soon to be published book entitled “Create the Future – for your company and yourself” is a “how to field guide” for leaders who want to think creatively about where to take their organization. Rick Williams is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.