5 Tactics for Leading in a Crisis



Mark J. Komen, President
Kodyne, Inc.
Minneapolis, MN

Even under normal circumstances effective organizational leadership can be a challenging endeavor.  However, this is especially true in times of a worldwide crisis that affects business survival, personal survival and both international and domestic economic performance.

Here are five tactics to keep in mind when leading your organizations in trying times.

1. Tell the Truth

Be the leader who builds a reputation for truth telling.  Effective crisis management relies on building trust as you and your organization work through the relevant issues with those parties affected by them.  Be clear, compelling and consistent in your communications. In trying times, people may doubt what they are hearing from you. “Am I really getting the true story?“ “ What aren’t they telling me?” “Can I rely on what I’m hearing?”

Your credibility as a leader is really on the line here and how you respond in a crisis sends messages to everyone about your values and what drives you.  This, in turn, will likely influence how your team functions.  Leadership authors Kouzes and Posner state in their book, Credibility, that people have high expectations of their leaders.  Followers want leaders who favor principles over politics and people over self-interests.  In my opinion, not telling the truth destroys credibility faster than anything else.

2. Acknowledge Other’s Fears

Employees, customers and supply chain partners (including banks!) deal with a cascade of emotions during a crisis.  I have received feedback that employees are nervous about whether or not they will have jobs, catching the covid-19 virus at work, being able to do their jobs effectively if working remotely and even the business being viable going forward.

Customers may worry whether you will be able to honor your commitments with the standards of quality they are used to getting from you.

Suppliers may worry about sourcing raw materials or products and if your business will still be placing orders.

Banks always have concerns about your cash flow and your ability to meet banking covenants.  This is magnified in the current pandemic environment with government regulations that seem to change by the minute and worries regarding how consumers will react in the coming months to businesses re-opening.  Will they show up and buy so money can start flowing again?

Business owners worry about…EVERYTHING!!

Effective leaders acknowledge that these fears exist and address them through constructive listening and meaningful dialog.  These interactions will help to foster the trust necessary to keep moving forward.  Trust is certainly at risk during a crisis as there are so many variables to deal with and often decisions must be made in very short time windows.  Crises also create the environment for misleading or damaging rumors, misinformation and disinformation to propagate through your organization.  Forward-thinking leaders will rally others to overcome their individual fears and become committed to any new courses of action needed.

3. Look for Improvements

“You don’t want to waste a good crisis!”

I don’t know came up with this but I agree that trying times can certainly be catalysts for looking at new ways to improve what you are doing.  It’s easy to fall back on the philosophy that “it’s OK to do things the way we’ve been doing them as long as we’re getting acceptable results.”  After all, you may have spent years analyzing and updating your processes for things like optimal efficiencies, statistically predictable production results or best margins.  Complacency is not an asset during a crisis and can be very detrimental if the world changes abruptly, right in front of your eyes.  Examine if what you’re currently doing is going to be productive going forward.  If you need to make changes, don’t be afraid to think big and be able to adjust your plans as necessary.  Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “I never lose.  I either win or learn.”

Some questions that challenge status quo thinking:

  • Can we innovate (enact meaningful changes) in our business offerings or processes?
  • Can we adapt our operations to do different things or do more with what we have?
  • What opportunities exist in the marketplace that we can re-direct our resources to address?
  • What do our clients or customers need from us RIGHT NOW?
  • What does society or our local community need from our company RIGHT NOW?

These are questions that will help to widen perspectives and allow innovation to take hold when it’s needed the most.

4. Have a Plan

A crisis may challenge your thinking in ways you haven’t imagined.  Create a game plan for your organization to follow going forward.  Get staff members enthused about it and committed to supporting it.  Install a tracking system to show and share progress.  Being able to respond quickly is crucial in addressing a crisis – especially one that is rapidly evolving with new information and impacts changing over time.  And be sure to celebrate successes when you have them.  Employees appreciate and are inspired by hearing that their contributions are recognized by organization leaders and customers, especially during times of trouble.

And, as always, plans are no good unless they are acted upon.  Execution is critically important.

5. Confide in Others

Business owners carry an immense amount of responsibility – from managing work and people, preserving brand, assessing risk, making decisions, negotiating terms …. The business owners I’ve been fortunate to work with have also demonstrated a deep caring for staff member’s families and the impacts of business operations and results on them as well.  Unfortunately, while attending to other’s fears and needs, many business owners don’t have anyone with whom they can confide their own fears.  Yet many would benefit from someone to talk with to help them process and deal with the turmoil they are experiencing and reviewing go-forward plans.  Gathering input from trusted advisors and staff members helps to make informed decisions as well as emotional support.  Going it alone is a risky path and owners need to avoid burnout themselves.

Where to go from here?

These are difficult but NOT unprecedented times.  Our business communities have weathered many crises over the last 30 years and I have faith that we’ll get through the current one created by the coronavirus pandemic.  Being able to arrive at meaningful and clearly thought out decisions during pressing times is an incredible challenge.  Creative solutions coupled with engaging and authentic messaging and supported by exemplary leadership are of utmost importance.


Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner.  Credibility.  Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1993.

©2020 Mark J. Komen.  All rights reserved worldwide