The Three Essential Things to do When Leading Through Crisis

Confront, Assert, Connect

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There will always be times of crisis for leaders. And there will be leaders that survive the crisis and come out stronger for it, and there will be those that do not. That fail.

In these times, the ones that survive, thrive even, are those that can do these three essential things; confront, assert, and connect.

You must be on the front foot with this, do not wait until you think you have a plan for crisis management to start doing these three things, you must start immediately.

Even better, a great leader makes these three things part of their daily rituals, crisis or not. And you can always start now.


Start from where you are

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“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be .” — James Stockdale

James Stockdale was the highest-ranking prisoner of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam war. When asked by the author Jim Collins how he survived his seven years in the prisoner camp he said the above. This statement is often called the Stockdale paradox and describes that there is a required duality during hardship.

Be optimistic and have faith that you will prevail, but make sure you start from where you are. You must, at all costs, understand your current environment and situation without any cognitive bias.

So how do you do this?

  1. Get your team together, tell them about the crisis as honestly as you can, then get them to hold a pre-mortem. A pre-mortem focuses on working out all the possible things that could go wrong based on your current situation. Your job is not to try and steer the conversation, only to ask for more detail and take notes. You are a pre-mortem secretary. Your job is to understand their thoughts on what could happen. In engineering, this step is called a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) and is used to build a safety case and characterize the risks. What failures could there be, and what is the effect of those failures.
  2. Turn these notes into a list of potential scenarios and then rank them against their likelihood and check them for consistent themes. Now with your team involved, go through these scenarios and identify all potential mitigations. Things that can stop these scenarios from eventuating, or getting to their worst. Be creative. These are your risk reduction methods. Your goal is then to find the high-value, low-cost mitigations. Have your team assemble a chart of mitigations that are plotted with their value in reducing your risk against their cost to implement. Find those that are high value, but cost you little.
  3. Now assign each of these mitigations a label. You must decide which of these actions are non-regrettable. That is, even if that scenario does not eventuate, is doing this still a good idea. If it is, then do it now anyway. Remember, people follow foot-prints, not butt-prints. If it is non-regrettable, take action. Now.

You now have a list of potential worst-case scenarios, but from a collective group of minds, from your team. You have also used those minds to identify a list of mitigations you could implement and all agreed that some of them are worth doing right now. The remainder may need to wait for that forecasted eventuality to arrive. Your team has some ownership of the outcomes and the effectiveness of the mitigations.

Remember, from where you are right now; what are the things that could happen, what can we do right now, and based on the likelihood of things occurring what preparations can we make right now to make us stronger today?

Start from where you are. Confront the truth and use your collective might to control your future.


Through your story, assert your end state

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“Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader…they set out to make a difference. Its never about the role — always about the goal.” — Lisa Haisha

Now you know the hardships you may need to endure, you have a known start point. What you need to decide is your end-point. You need to set your goal, assert where you want to be when this is all over, and decide the path you walked to get there.

The key here is knowing the brutal facts of your endpoint and describing your path there.

But the future is uncertain, we cannot predict the future”

This is an easy thing to say, but I want to tell you about the games I play with my kids in the car — we call it Punch Buggy and Spotto. Every time we see a Volkswagon Beetle or a Yellow Car, we can call out either Punch Buggy or Spotto, then give an affectionate punch to the arm. It is a great car travel game, and it hones your ability to see these vehicles on the road. Your brain has prioritized this information.

The same happens when you have a narrative that supports your goals. Your brain starts to prioritize information that may be valuable to achieving them. You start to see opportunities everywhere.

The keys to asserting your goals in a crisis are;

  1. Be unrelentingly realistic about your potential outcomes. A way of doing this is to perform a bracketing exercise. Split your company goals into five sectors; product, process, people, price, and performance (you can have more if it suits). Then define the best credible outcome and the worst credible outcome for your company across these five sectors. For instance, the best credible outcome for people might be we lose no-one and maintain our staff engagement levels. A worst credible outcome is we have to stand-down 80% of our staff from all of our non-essential functions. You now have a bracket of potential outcomes your likely realistic goal is between those two somewhere. My tip, you should aim above the average. Strive for the top, take all possible steps to avoid the bottom, and hit somewhere close to the top. In this, I suggest you put people as much as you can, first. Compromise on others if you must, but never compromise on your people unless necessary. They will be responsible for your recovery.
  2. Once you have defined your realistic outcomes from those five sectors, you have enough information to compose your narrative, your path from where you are to where you may end up. You now need to positive about achieving this. What things did we overcome to get there? What challenges were faced (you have them listed), and how did the team come together to work through them to achieve that outcome. Your story needs to deal with the hardships and the celebrations. Your story needs to be about the team, and never about you. This becomes your strategy.
  3. You and the team need to all understand that narrative. You are aiming to achieve the best credible outcome and you are fighting against the worst. Communicate it widely. Regularly. Honestly. Your team needs to know and own the strategy. The story.

You have a clear picture of what it is you want to achieve, you have a narrative that supports you achieving it, your job as a leader is to now convey confidence that the team can achieve it.

Assert the outcomes, acknowledge the story, provide confidence to the team.The Three Essential Skills to Drive Your Success
And you need all


Communicate, communicate, communicate. But, be heard.

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“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
― George Bernard Shaw

The thing with communication is it isn’t just talking. It is being seen and heard. It is so much more than talking. To be heard during a time of crisis, you need to connect with those you are communicating with.

Your team has a lot on their mind. They are wondering about all of those worst credible outcomes you have talked about, they are questioning if they can reach for the best credible outcome. They are thinking about how all of this impacts them and their loved ones.

You get a very small window to reach them. You have to find them where they are.

  1. Don’t pretend to understand the things on their mind, but freely speak with them about the things on yours. You need to empathize with them, start your stories from where the team is. Start by acknowledging their perception of reality. Then describe the very next steps and why they are important. Do this, and you will reach them where they are and move them forward. If you have a remote team, try and make sure you can see their faces when you communicate and know that they can see yours. Whilst the often-quoted number of 7% of communication being verbal is not true, people have a higher chance of understanding your message if they can see and hear you.
  2. Your message needs to have substance to carry any weight. How do you build communication that has substance? You fold in examples and stories from inside and outside of the company. Speak to your Personal Advisory Board about the times they have dealt with a crisis. It does not have to be the same as your example, there have been plenty of leaders in many companies who have adapted in plenty of crises throughout time.
  3. Eliminate your say-do gap, it doesn’t matter what you say if you cannot be seen doing it yourself. General Stanley McChrystal (retired) calls the gap between words and actions the say-do gap. This is the most important part of being heard. If you announce that we are only going to be able to pay everyone for three days work per work and that there will be a rotating roster, then continue to take your full payment, you have a say-do gap.

In times of crisis, leading is hard. The hardest part is getting your communication right. You cannot be too positive, and you cannot be too pessimistic. You need to find credible aspiration and drive your communication to that. In times of crisis, it is not the time for big goals, it is time for credibility. Be honest, credible and only slightly aspirational.

Fold substance into your story by finding goodness within your company, and examples of triumph from outside. Most importantly, eliminate your say-do gap.

You need to connect with your team, with your story, and with your goals. It is not just talking, it is being heard and seen.

Leading through Crisis

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Leaders are not defined when the going is easy when the path is straight and well worn. Leaders are created in the furnace of chaos in the uncertainty of the crisis.

If you can confront the facts of your current situation with the right mindset, you are on the path to leading through the chaos. You must know where you are if you are to take any step forward. Find those non-regrettable actions and start. Remember — people follow footprints, not butt-prints.

With those facts confronted, you need to assert your path through your story. It must be credible and brutally honest. People think strategy is hard. All strategy is a description of where you are and where you want to be, with the steps to get from one to the other mapped out.

Weave the narrative of the path to your goals with the substance of previous success within the company, or inspiration from outside it. But, most importantly, have no say-do gap. Whatever it is that you speak, it cannot be simple rhetoric. You must also do it.

Remember — people follow footprints, not butt-prints.

I am a writer with a passion for leadership, growth and personal development. I try and create a spark, a little idea that nests inside and kindles your aspirations. Reach me at

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