What Makes You an Effective Leader in Crisis Situations?

By David De Cremer

For many organizational leaders and entrepreneurs, the coronavirus crisis represents a very challenging environment to lead and motivate their teams.

What do you tell them to ensure the company keeps going and that there can be light seen at the end of the tunnel? What should your people be doing while the health crisis paralyses society and the business world?

I list four principles leaders should stick to in leading their team members to keep their company relevant to the outside world. 

1. Stay in touch with your customers

Relationships, like humans, need to be fed else they cease to exist. Even though you cannot deliver tangible value to them, it is worthwhile to keep your customers and other stakeholders informed about where your company is at. Crisis situations can bond people, so, in a similar vein, staying connected with your primary stakeholders can strengthen relationships.

2. Look for creative ways to reflect the values and quality of your organisation and keep your stakeholders involved in this movement

How you act under situations of crisis says something about who you are. And, indeed, when the pressure is on, people believe that your real personality reveals itself. A crisis situation therefore in a sense helps to come to grips of what you really care about and what can be improved if needed. If there is a time that it is important to walk the talk, then it is now. How you act now will decide the credentials that you will receive from others.

3. It’s time to experiment and fail (!) and learn (!), because if not now, then when?

Crisis situations are extraordinary times and therefore standardized ways of working will usually not be effective anymore. With a crisis comes the challenge to get the creative juices going. It will be of essence to explore how to adapt to a changing context and be able to create value. Unfortunately, because a crisis situation increases uncertainty, the default of most leaders will be to shy away from the unknown. Hence, most companies will stick to the status quo and wait until the crisis is over. Such a response is always a missed opportunity. Indeed, when a crisis is over, many things will not be the same as before. As such, the old ways of working may not be sufficient anymore. If you have not experimented and learned from failures when the crisis was in place, you are not prepared to meet new demands from your stakeholders (induced by the mere fact there was a crisis) and miss out on new growth opportunities.

4. Don’t make any hard deals as nothing can be guaranteed today (what worked in the past may not be the case anymore in the near future)

Because many leaders prefer to stick to the status quo when the crisis is at its peak, their focus remains on how to get deals. And, if that’s not possible, at least not change anything. Both ways of working are in a way a loss of time and effort. During the crisis situations, most customers will not spend, and, hence, you will not be able to make hard deals. Second, if you then not explore and experiment to prepare for business after the crisis is over, you run the risk to be an outdated and inflexible company that has not learned and moved on since the crisis happened. And, be aware, your customers will know.

Remember that this crisis, this pandemic, is unlike anything before

The coronavirus pandemic unlike any situation that the world has encountered for a number of decades. Indeed, capable leaders first must assess the situation accurately before they can think of any action plan. But everyone from the governmental to organizational to the individual level is being caught flat-footed. Numerous changes had to be done to the economy, travel, and people’s lives overnight.

They say tough times create tough people. But this…this is a unique time for all of us. Hospitals even in highly advanced medical systems are crumbling. State leaders are fighting the pandemic blind as any vaccine will take at least one year before production and global distribution. Businesses are making tough decisions to close up shop and whether or not to lay off their employees in hopes or surviving the global economic fallout.

Indeed, some industries are thriving due to heightened demand for their services such as streaming and food to name a few. But for many businesses, they have no choice but to scale back operations, even lay off a few people, and make do as long as they can survive until the dust settles. However, many businesses are now given a new lease of life amidst the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout by going online and continuing operations. But it’s not good news for all online businesses, especially those who rely on shipments from an already interrupted global supply chain.

All things considered, leadership now, in the face of total adversity, can best be tested on how well you manage your resources, perhaps your ability to rally and unite whoever’s under you, and if it comes to worst-case scenarios, perhaps the ability to sacrifice for the greater good. As for what the greater good is, it depends on everyone’s situation and what’s at stake. But we must also lead ourselves in doing the right thing by staying home and not hoarding selfishly. For leadership is also measured by the ability to control temptations. Suffice to say that this crisis will test the leader in all of us, whatever our situation might be.

About the Author

David De Cremer is a Provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the corporate-sponsored “Centre on AI Technology for Humankind” at NUS Business school. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed chaired professor in management studies and current honorary fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School. He is also a fellow at St. Edmunds College, Cambridge University. He is named one of the World’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 by the organization GlobalGurus, one of the “2021 Thinkers50 Radar list of 30 next generation business thinkers”, nominated for the Thinkers50 Distinguished 2021 award for Digital Thinking (a bi-annual gala event that the Financial Times deemed the “Oscars of Management Thinking”) and included in the World Top 2% of scientists (published by Stanford). He is a best-selling author with his co-authored book (with Tian Tao and Wu Chunbo) on “Huawei: Leadership, Culture and Connectivity” (2018) having received global recognition. His recent book “Leadership by Algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?” (2020) received critical acclaim worldwide, was named one of the 15 leadership books to read in Summer 2020 by Wharton and the kindle version of the book reached the no. 1 at amazon.com. His latest book is “On the emergence and understanding of Asian Global Leadership”, which was named management book of the month July (2021) by De Gruyter. His website: www.daviddecremer.com


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