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The past few years have sprung plenty of surprises on business leaders – COVID-19, the subsequent supply chain crisis, and then, once everything looked like it had startled to settle down, the massive disruption from the war in Ukraine. The highest inflation for several decades, increased interest rates, and a new international banking crisis resulting from poor bond yields have been poured onto the mix, adding fuel to the fire. And for many businesses what is burning is margin.

These challenges have stretched business leaders. The world has moved from a time where an occasional crisis might be expected to one where continuous crisis management is rapidly becoming the norm. In this article, we explore the personal challenges leaders face during a crisis and the innovative approaches required to lead effectively in these situations. 

Unexpected demands on leadership

In troubled times, as the business environment moves from the familiar to uncharted territory, leaders are called upon to show ingenuity in their responses. Dealing with the complexity and uncertainty produced by a crisis, let alone a whole string of them, demands not only a willingness to show flexibility but also knowledge of how to demonstrate the leadership required. This is both contextual and personal.

Becoming more effective requires increasing the range of your responses. This in turn demands increased self-awareness about how you act when under severe pressure.

To respond appropriately to the unexpected often requires doing something new and untried. In a crisis, nothing is fixed. But without adequate personal preparation, our instincts and habitual actions are always capable of undermining even the best-laid plans. Rehearsal in responding to the unexpected can prepare us for the real event.

Characteristics that are important for a leader in a crisis

Here are a few suggestions on how to prepare yourself for a crisis drawn from an effective “leadership workout” carried out by a successful COO. The exercises carefully combine our right-brain capacity for sensing and feeling with more left-brain cognitive and analytical approaches.

Become familiar with the unfamiliar: Start by recognizing your comfort zones, as these tend also to be our default options in times of crisis. What is your preferred leadership style when hard pressed? What do you do, what do you say, and what do you not do? What alternative ways of leading might be more effective?

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable: The goal here is to turn our sense of stress and discomfort into our ally. In past crises, what feelings and thoughts distinguished the moments when you have felt, or have actually been, out of your depth? Label this vulnerability for what it is. Recognize how stress affects you physically and label these feelings as your personal “danger signal”, the “red flag” that can alert you to impending crisis.

Tune into the stressful moment: The goal is for you to become aware of your danger signals as early on as possible. Once you have identified what happens to you in stressful moments during times of crisis, learn to recognize this feeling in everyday circumstances. What can you do to modify how you respond so as to ensure that the danger signals are of benefit to you and an ally during crisis?

Limber up the agility muscle: The goal is to become more flexible in your leadership responses in changing circumstances. From past experience, what are your own red flags telling you not to do? Practice alternatives. Try out a number of different leadership styles and become familiar with how this makes you feel and how it affects others.

Act expansively when under pressure: Most of us, when under severe pressure. We narrow down our options and revert to well-tried solutions. We need to train ourselves to do the opposite, to open up the solution space during such times by involving others in tackling the challenges. Who is it that you will turn to for extra input during a crisis? Who has complementary skill-sets and can bring a different perspective? What novel approaches are you willing to embrace?

The “leadership workout” will help encourage the practice of right-brain approaches that are unfamiliar to many leaders. This practice is in direct contrast, however, to the impulsive behavior typified by following our “gut instinct”. Our first responses are sometimes the wrong ones. The testing of our potential responses prior to enacting them, to establish whether they are appropriate, remains always the first duty of a responsible leader.

For more practical advice on how to effectively lead in times of a crisis, read our in-depth analysis.