5 Keys To Demonstrating Strong Leadership During Times Of Crisis


If you’re not in a crisis situation now, just wait a moment. Crises, whether in a company, country or your personal life happen all the time, and they can create discomfort and uncertainty.

It’s easy in these situations to point fingers and ask, “Where is the leadership we need during times of crisis?” 

Whether it’s the country or your company, the answer is simple. The leadership needed right now is within each of us. If we wait till someone steps in, takes charge, or makes things better for us, we might wait forever, and we might not like their solutions.

It’s up to you to lead.

5 Keys To Demonstrating Strong Leadership During Crisis

When a crisis hits, someone has to step up and take charge. It might as well be you. 

One of my early mentors, Curt, said, “I looked around at the people involved, and I didn’t see anyone that much smarter than me so I decided to do it.”  That is you now. If you are looking at a crisis that needs to be handled, then you are the one to handle it.

So how do you tackle leadership during times of crisis?

  1. Be Confident. 
  2. Genuinely Care About People.
  3. Reframe The Crisis.
  4. Take The Initiative – And Don’t Stop Taking It. 
  5. Lead By Example.  
"When a crisis hits, someone has to step up and take charge. It might as well be you." If you're navigating a crisis, check out @debrabenton's 5 Keys To Demonstrating Strong Leadership During Times of Crisis Click To Tweet

1. Be Confident

I have interviewed  CEOs and various leaders in industry and government for each of my twelve books so that I can get their take on what it takes to be a leader. One person I interviewed was Barkley, the then editor of the Wall Street Journal. He basically said that to be an editor you have to have guts, courage, and confidence to put your thinking out there. 

That’s the most critical part of my job, not the writing — the courage. It’s the most critical part of your job as a leader too. 

You’re probably saying, “OK, I get it, I need courage and confidence,” but you also might wonder exactly how you get more confidence

The short answer is your managed attitude, and that starts with your self talk.

There are two words I’d like you to tattoo onto your brain, or maybe your forearm. These two words are what effective leaders universally have as their mindset when interacting with others.

Expect Acceptance

Expect acceptance doesn’t mean that you are owed anything. We all have someone intimidating and powerful in our lives. They may seem like they are high above you, but to expect acceptance means that you mentally place yourself at the same level. 

We often place ourselves lower than others out of habit, socialization, or insecurity. No. More. 

Until you die, you must put yourself at the same level as everyone else. It’s not that you are owed anything; it is that you expect acceptance.

The self talk that supports it is “I’m adequate.”  You may be a high achiever who wants to be great, and that is wonderful, but adequacy is actually the highest level you can go to. You are either adequate or inadequate.

Choose to believe you’re adequate, because the first step to leading in a time of crisis is to believe you can do it.

2. Genuinely Care About People.

Leaders make leaders out of others. All the work you put into developing your inner strength and confidence has to be utilized for others. Your job as a human being is to do all you can to maintain the self-esteem of people, especially during a time of crisis. 

Why? Because if you do, those people will walk on coals for you. If you don’t, they will never forget.

Leaders make leaders out of others. All the work you put into developing your inner strength and confidence has to be utilized for others. Click To Tweet

Caring For People Starts With Giving Acceptance to Everyone

When discussing confidence, you need to Expect Acceptance. Now it’s time to discuss the flip side.

You will only get things accomplished with people. You will only get people on board with you if you give acceptance to their character, motive, and ability. 

Just like your self-talk should be, “I’m adequate.” Your thinking and actions towards the character, motives, and abilities of others should be “They are adequate.” You do not judge, criticize, or attack their character, motive, or ability if you want them to work with you.

Think about it.You don’t like your character, motive, or ability attacked. Well, neither do others. As a leader, you should address behavior, but make sure you’ve made it clear what behavior you want and that you are focusing on the behavior only.

Say that Jon did a report for me and it was lousy. I have two ways of addressing it. I could say “Jon, this report is crap, I’m not sure you are smart enough to do what I need and I question your honesty in some of the statements, and frankly wonder if you have the stuff I thought you had before I saw what you wore today. Do it over.”  

Or I could say, “Jon, this report is below the standard of excellence I’ve come to expect from you. I think you’ll want to do this over.”

Which would you want to hear? Which would get you a better report?

You can only get the behavior you want if you don’t judge character, motives, and ability.  An amateur trying to be a leader thinks people are like themselves. A pro knows everyone had a different mama, and they think and do things differently. Your job is not to judge but to accept.

Giving acceptance has to emote from your whole being towards any and everyone. You may think you are good at hiding your feelings but most of us aren’t good enough actors to do it.   

You can’t think, “He is such a jerk” and then hide it.  

You don’t have to go around and say everyone is wonderful, but you have no right to be judgmental.  People can tell what you’re thinking.

So give acceptance…until people lie, steal, or cheat. Then you’re done with them and should move on without them. 

But for everyone else, give acceptance and then take tangible steps to show them that you care.

Three Steps To Showing People You Care During A Crisis

  1. Feed the Troops First
  2. Get In The Trenches
  3. Seek Input From Your People…And Then Listen To Them.

1. Feed The Troops First.

Feed The Troops

Every good general from every era knows the importance of putting their soldiers first. From the Roman army 700-800 years ago to the modern army the same mantra holds true: Take care of your people.

One CEO expressed it this way, “I don’t have 500 people who work for me. I’m working for 500 people.”  

Taking care of the troops means giving credit and building up their ego rather than your own. Even if you aren’t the CEO of your company, you are the CEO of your life, your family, and your career. Take care of those around you.

2. Get In The Trenches. 

Get In The Trenches

Show up for your people. One CEO who had insomnia was known for calling people on the plant floor during the third shift and chatting about what was going on. He was friendly, not necessarily trying to make friends, but friendly. They would give him ideas and when a crisis hit, they were ready to do anything for him.

The people four levels down are the ones who are going to be doing the work to get you out of your crisis. The least you can do is be with them.

3. Seek Input From Your People…And Then Listen To Them.

When you are with your people, no matter what position they hold, talk to them. Ask questions and listen. The CEO who chatted with his people at 3 am wasn’t just talking about the football game. Well, maybe a little to warm them up, but if you want to bring your people on board, they have to be asked and they have to be heard. 

Talk to the people at all levels of your organization using the power of asking questions to build rapport and get the whole picture.

Ask questions about what people want to achieve, maintain and avoid. Ask questions about resources. Ask the who, what, where, when or why questions to get a fuller understanding of what is happening. Then, ask the same questions three different ways to make sure you get a complete answer.

Only when you have gathered all the input you can, do you speak up. Your people will feel heard and will work harder because they know you care about them. Plus, you’ll make better decisions with their input.

3. Reframe The Crisis 

Reframe The Crisis

A crisis, per the dictionary, is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger when important decisions must be made for important changes to take place. 

Or it’s an opportunity, a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.

It’s all in your choice of perspective. Leadership during crisis requires reframing the crisis in terms of what you can do rather than what is happening around you.

Don’t deny reality but do choose a perspective that is productive and constructive. A lot of things in life are good or bad depending on your point of view. Everything in life is about perspective.

Frankly, it can be when you have the most fun ever in your career. You should be dancing in the street because it’s something new to do.  You might have fun for a year if you can stretch it out.

Benefits of a Crisis

  • It’s an opportunity for you to shine and rise to the occasion.
  • It’s an opportunity for you to help others shine.
  • It’s a chance to clean house of people who don’t shine.
  • It’s a time to change some rules.
  • Each time you get through one you get better at it and your confidence grows.
  • It gives the network news something to cover because they love crises.

Like anything else, there can be downsides to a crisis. People take advantage of it for financial gain or power, and sometimes crises are fabricated for that purpose alone. Your job is to head your crisis towards the benefits.

4.Take the initiative

Take The Initiative

Leadership during crisis requires leadership principles put on steroids.  It’s a get it done now time. It’s your step up moment. It’s time to cope with the situation and take positive advantage of it. As the Marine Corp teaches “adapt and overcome.”

So, speak up and step up. Nothing happens until you do. And you each have countless opportunities every day to initiate something for improvement. 

Take the initiative.

To initiate is to do something before you are asked, before the “time is right”, and before the stars are aligned for the age of Aquarius or something.  If you wait for someone else, you will wait forever. 

Worse if you wait for someone else you will have to live or work under their rules. You will have to work with people of their choice. You will have to do the dumb things they come up with. 

When you initiate, you get to:

  • Turn things around, make things happen.
  • Choose the chances you’re going to take and make a difference.
  • Be around the people you want.
  • Minimize doing things you think are stupid.
  • Make decisions that change the world or at least your world.
  • Do what you think is right.
  • Be the leader you always wanted to have.

If you don’t take the initiative, then you don’t enjoy those benefits. However, if you don’t take the lead in a way that inspires confidence and sets you apart, then you won’t have the impact you want to have. 

Stand Up

Stand Up

Leaders stand out. Leaders in a motorcycle gang might have the longest beard or beefiest muscles. Leaders in a music group have the wildest moves. Leaders in a business environment have straight posture, average build, and, generally speaking, hair. Yes, that is stereotyping, but just look at the pictures in Fortune’s Top 100 CEOs issue.

When I say “stand up,” I mean literally and figuratively. Figuratively, it’s another way of saying initiate. Literally, it sends a message to those around you.

Your physicality as a leader during a time of crisis corroborates what you say with what they see. People believe what they see. Your audience has been raised on television. They can turn off most any show and just watch the body movement and pretty much tell you what is going on.

People trust their gut. They think they are a good judge of people, and they judge based on what you show them, even if it isn’t what you’re feeling at the moment.

So stand up straight. Have good posture. It’s a simple step, but it will help you feel more confident, and it will set a good example for your people.

There are other ways to use your physical presence to stand out (and I’m not talking about outrageous clothing or blue hair). Your gestures, gait, and manner of speaking can diminish your message or set you apart as someone to trust.

When leading during a crisis, you have to make decisions fast and take action faster; but if you walk, talk, or gesture quickly, you dilute your message or it doesn’t even get delivered. 

If what you have to say is worth saying, say it in a way it gets heard.  I like a “pass the salt” tone of voice no matter how animated the conversation. Pass the salt keeps the conversation at an even keel without emotional overtones.

Above all, physically maintain an approachable, confident, competent, calm, good-natured look about your face.  People watch your face. Keep your game face on whether you are mad, glad, sad, or scared.

5. Lead By Example. 

Lead By Example

If you want good workers around you to solve your problems, you are going to have to inspire them.  

Your success in any situation comes from two things: Being pulled up from above by what people see you do and being pushed up from below by what you help other people do. When you set a good example, you are setting yourself and those around you up for success. 

Your job as a leader is to demonstrate the values and characteristics you want to see in others. There’s a lot that can be said about effective leadership (books and books of it!) but there are traits you should display before, during, and after a crisis to get the most out of yourself and your people. This is not a comprehensive list, but these are some of the key qualities you need to demonstrate in your leadership during crisis situations.

  • Be Ethical.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
  • Stay Positive And Consistent.
  • Be Open-Minded To New Ideas, Circumstances, And Knowledge.
  • Have People Smarter Than You To Talk To.
  • Permit Mistakes Of Yourselves and Others.
  • Manage Expectations.
  • Keep Measurements.
  • Pass On People Who Don’t Do The Above.

Be Ethical. Your success as a leader should never come at the benefit of your integrity. It always catches up with you. You cannot expect people to follow someone they cannot trust

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. You only stop communicating when your people start saying, “Stop, you’re communicating too much!”

Stay Positive And Consistent. Your positive attitude is infectious and will give others the courage and hope to continue, but if you lose your cool and have a “hissy fit” it will damage the credibility you’ve worked to develop.  

Be Open-Minded To New Ideas, Circumstances, And Knowledge. The situation is always in flux during a crisis. You cannot afford to hold onto “the way we’ve always done it” if you want to forge a new path forward. You don’t have to know everything, but you do need to be open to gaining new insight.

Have People Smarter Than You To Talk To. I credit a lot of my success to the mentors I sought out early in my career. You don’t know what you don’t know and mentors and coaches give you insight you would not have otherwise. Seek out experts in fields you’re not good at. 

Permit Mistakes Of Yourselves and Others. If you make a mistake, apologize and move on. If your people make a mistake, have their back. If they don’t believe 1000% that you have their back, they won’t step up. Take complete responsibility yourself for all mistakes, and give complete credit to others for any successes.

Manage Expectations. You’ve heard the expression “under promise, over deliver”. That’s good advice for managing a crisis. One, you never know where things are going to go next in a crisis. Two, if you promise too much, people won’t believe you and may even sabotage your efforts just to prove themselves right

Keep Measurements. Your people will get you through your crisis, but you need the analytics to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.

Pass On People Who Don’t Do The Above. If you are setting the example as a leader and you have someone who is not following the same standards, that may not be a person you want to keep.

Good Leadership During Times of Crisis Requires You To Act

Most of what I’ve shared is common sense. A lot of it you are hopefully already doing, but if you aren’t, then start developing your leadership skills and a rapport with your people now. You can know all of the right things to do (and there are countless resources you can utilize) but if you do not choose to act on that knowledge, you will miss the opportunity your crisis presents. A leader in life steps up…a leader in a crisis steps up sooner.  

Additional Leadership Resources

As I mentioned earlier, I credit much of my success with listening to people smarter than myself and I would encourage you to do the same. Here are a few additional resources on leading during a crisis from experts you can trust. 

Inc. Magazine

5 Things Success Leaders Do in a Crisis 

Harvard Business Review

4 Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis


4 Things Leaders Should Do When Crisis Disrupts People

World Economic Forum=

7 Leadership Principles in a Time of Crisis

This blog is a summary of an online course I recently taught for the Colorado State University College of Business. If you are looking for additional training for your organization, I offer professional leadership development via webinar as well as Bite-Size Executive Coaching for one one one sessions.

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