Great leadership is easy when it’s all plain sailing, but the best leaders shine in times of crisis.  And it’s true, a great leader can save a company, or destroy it.  There are many examples of great leadership in sport, politics and business.  After the BP Oil spill of 2011 that was both a human and environmental tragedy, the response of the then CEO was found to be severely lacking.  The turnaround of Ford, on the other hand, following the financial crisis of 2007-08 shows how good leadership can make the difference between bankruptcy and success.  More recently the world’s political leaders have presented great examples of different leadership techniques.

So, what is it that makes great leadership in a crisis?

Be a good leader now

If you want your employees to follow you in a time of crisis then they need to respect you, your decision making and leadership under ‘normal’ circumstances. If you haven’t already, now is the time to build your relationship with your employees. Earn the right to ask them to follow you in crisis.

There are so many courses, books, blogs, reports and much research on what makes a great leader it can be overwhelming. If you are looking to build empathy with staff, look up the recent Netflix series ‘The Playbook’. Ubuntu was used by Doc Rivers in leading the 2008 Celtics to an NBA title. Ubuntu is an ancient African philosophy. It comes from the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which translates to “a person can only be a person through others.”  It is a concept championed by Nelson Mandela, who recognised that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye and that we achieve by sharing ourselves with others.

More about Ubuntu

Take decisive and strong action

‘Go hard, go early’ is the phrase used by Jacinda Ardern in her management of the Covid-19 crisis, and it accurately sums up how great leaders should manage a crisis. (Whether or not you agree with her politics there is very little argument that she been a strong leader.)

In a time of crisis employees look to their leader to control the chaos.  If the leader is fumbling around and giving confused messages, it creates ambiguity and uncertainty, and ultimately failure. Decisive and strong action, on the other hand, shows employees that the leader is in control.  Having a sense of purpose also helps to allay fear and anxiety and gives a feeling of oneness – everyone working towards the same goal.

Get good credible information and commit to your actions

You will quickly loose the support of your employees if your decisive and strong action is proven to be absolutely the wrong thing to have done.  It’s important therefore to make your decisions based on good and credible information.

Be realistic – remember the UK and Italian leaders who claimed Covid-19 was just the flu and carried on hugging constituents?

Exercise caution – now is not the time for drastic decisions.  Remember the advice from James Stockdale (a US Navy aviator who spent 7 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam) – never doubt you will survive, but never let your optimism blind you to reality.


Be present and be visible. Respond rapidly so that other narratives (invariably worse) do not fill the void.  Project honesty and confidence but don’t sugar coat. When you sugar coat, it tends to lead to inconsistency, which in turn creates a lack of trust and confusion amongst your employees. If you are open and honest, even if there have been mistakes, you are more likely to have the trust you need. Humility gives you greatness.

According to Boin, a political scientist who has studied successful and unsuccessful responses in emergency, good communication in a crisis should have five aims – offer a credible explanation, provide guidance, instil hope, show empathy and suggest the leaders are in control.

Protect, pivot and plan

The Harvard Business School advises that during a crisis you should protect the core and pivot to new opportunities. Embrace change with enthusiasm.

The recent emergence of so many online businesses supporting working from home, or companies moving to online shopping is a great example of this. And once the crisis starts to calm, listen, learn and reflect. We live in an unstable world – by understanding what went well and not so well from this crisis we can learn to better handle, and plan for, the next one.

And last, but by no means least, we say again listen. You never know where the next good idea is coming from, maybe the guy who carries the water for the players at half time, has the idea that will turn the team around (watch the new Apple TV plus series, Ted Lasso)!

More about Ted Lasso

Our leaders

The Back Room was started by brothers, Wayne and Scott Findlay, from New Zealand. You can learn more about their management style by watching this video.

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