Leading Through Crisis

All problems are not created equal and turbulent times occur without warning. Crisis occurs when large numbers of people are negatively impacted by something they cannot control. Natural disasters, economic downturns, and pandemics are all exemplars of crisis. In 2020, we lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a crisis in almost every aspect of our lives. In these times, we look to our leaders to provide the answers and to demonstrate compassion and caring as they make the necessary and difficult decisions.

As a leader in public safety, your primary focus is to keep your employees, yourselves, your families, and the community safe. The massive scale of the outbreak and continued unpredictability of this pandemic created unique challenges for each of us. It has created unforeseen difficulty; however, when leaders demonstrate specific skills, a path toward the “new normal” can be forged.

While anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions are typically strong at times like these, there are specific leadership behaviors that can decrease these negative emotions while increasing performance, productivity, and feelings of hope. Here are the 5 most effective behaviors leaders can utilize to help others remain calm and see the forged path ahead.

Woman meditating while sitting on floor

Leadership Behavior #1: Stay Calm

Yes, your organization has suddenly been faced with a tragic event that you could never have anticipated. Resources are limited and the way forward appears vague. You are likely to feel some anxiety and stress as a result. Don’t panic, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and accept the reality.

Staying calm will allow you to see beyond the chaos and arrive at solutions quicker.  Remember your employees are looking to you for leadership. How you choose to respond at the onset can be the difference-maker in the behaviors of your team. Calm leaders are focused and able to quickly assess changing circumstances and uncover innovative solutions. With a calm mindset, leaders can eliminate negative self-talk and clear the road toward a bright future.

In the moments where you feel most anxious and stressed out, stop, breathe, and take a moment to let the negative feelings pass. Then decided what to do next.

Man and woman talking

Leadership Behavior #2: Be Present

The stress of the crisis often results in leaders feeling overwhelmed and focused on the lengthy, never-ending list of tasks to complete. Your instinct may be to hide or isolate yourself until you have figured things out. When this happens, your troops are left alone feeling abandoned and without direction.

During times of uncertainty, leaders must resist the temptation to work in solitude and be present!  Be visible and accessible to your team. Provide a safe and secure place for your members to express their emotions and fears. Recognize that their voice matters and that they will be on the front lines executing your plan.

You likely don’t have all the answers and won’t until the crisis has passed. The best thing you can do is to just show up and be present for your employees. In the end, they won’t remember if you had the best answers – they’ll remember if you were there or not.

One hand reaching for another hand

Leadership Behavior #3: Ask for Help

Simply put, great leaders know when to ask for help.

We all appreciate hard workers, but when you struggle alone, you send the message that no one is needed or wanted. Everyone knows no one person has all the answers and your troops want to be helpful. So let them!

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness! In fact, more often than not your members will see it as a strength and an illustration of your value of them. Letting them be a part of your “ think tank” can provide the perspective and innovation needed to solve complex problems.

Firefighter carrying dog through fire

Leadership Behavior #4: Be Flexible & Decisive

During a crisis, things change quickly. New information comes in at a rapid place and leaders are tasked with determining how to navigate that information. Decisions must be made quickly with the foresight that a decision made today may be a decision changed tomorrow.

While the situation remains fluid, leaders must remain flexible and adapt quickly. For many, this is uncomfortable and the tendency can be to overanalyze and delay decisions. Many leaders start to prefer the “wait and see” approach because they are afraid of overreacting or making the wrong decision.

Leaders must remember that their initial decisions aren’t overreactions. These decisions are necessary and provide the foundation upon which the organization can build. Remember, if the decision today was wrong, you get to make a new decision tomorrow anyway!

Group of people talking around a table

Leadership Behavior #5: Over Communicate

Communication is the most critical component of any successful plan.

Your employees want information. They want to know the strategy, who’s in charge, how the crisis will affect them directly and who do they go to for questions. They are afraid, anxious, and unsure of what’s to come.

While you may not be able to answer all of their questions, it is important to communicate what you do know. Leaders must be willing to be transparent and unafraid to say “I don’t know … but we are working on an answer”. Consistent and centralized communication can make the difference between an organization that survives versus the “kiss of death” that results from incorrect and incomplete information.

The more you communicate, the easier it is for everyone to respond appropriately. During times of crisis, the rule of thumb is to over-communicate. If you previously had weekly check-ins, have them daily now. If you had them daily, check-in multiple times per day through the crisis. The goal is to keep everyone’s anxiety low and behavior directed by you, the leader.

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