Leading Through Crisis During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted in: PSA Partnership

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken us as suddenly and devastatingly as a powerful earthquake, and with it came a tsunami of unforeseen business closures, layoffs, and challenges. During this unprecedented time that threatens to reshape every corner of our lives, we are counting on leaders with the ability to stabilize, strategize and mobilize teams — that is leading through crisis.

To help our clients and partners navigate the pandemic related business leadership challenges, PSA recently held a webinar, featuring Major General (Retired) Mike Rothstein, who served as the Vice Commander of Air Force University. He shared his experience leading through the Great Sendai Earthquake of 2011 in Japan.

The Great Sendai Earthquake came in at a level 9.0 on the Richter scale, and it triggered a tsunami with waves as high as approximately 38 meters, which flooded over 200 square miles of land. With around 500,000 people forced to evacuate and approximately 20,000 people dead or missing, the region also faced a nuclear emergency, as the natural disasters had caused a nuclear power plant meltdown nearby. While Rothstein acknowledged that his crisis was not our crisis, his successes, failures, and eight lessons learned are universally applicable to effectively leading through crisis.

Lesson 1: The leader’s attitude is highly infectious

In the hours immediately following the Great Sendai Earthquake, Major General (Retired) Rothstein noted the stress and tension in their operations center, and he realized it was not caused by what happened but by him as a leader. Because he was letting his stress emanate through him, he was infecting everyone else with tension rather than hope.

“I literally tell myself ‘stay calm, because people are counting on me to stay calm’” he shared. If you need to excuse yourself to take some deep breaths and get to a calmer state, do it. Another tool to put your situation into a healthier perspective is to remember that things could always be worse. But in doing so, don’t forget to acknowledge the hard realities.

He also added that all roles have the responsibility to be a leader and make an impact. If calm and positive is what you expect from your leaders, then you yourself must portray those traits.

Lesson 2: Be cautious of the hype of the day

When the media is causing panic 24/7, be sure to scrutinize your sources of information, as you can slip into believing messages that don’t have a sound basis. Rothstein has learned that the first information you get in crisis is almost always wrong. At a minimum, it’s not fully complete, so take it with a grain of salt. Ask questions and follow-up.

Lesson 3: Communicate more, communicate more often

Rothstein stressed that one of his biggest mistakes as a leader was his failure to communicate well with both his team and the public in the first several hours following the Great Sendai Earthquake. There is a natural tendency for communications to slow down in crisis because leaders are so busy trying to figure things out. As such, they end up not communicating enough or at all during a time when people need clear communication more than ever.

As a leader of an organization, you don’t need to do all the communication yourself, but be visible and involved in some capacity. Do what you can and find people you trust to execute the agreed-upon strategy.

When building a communication strategy for many different audiences, make sure you are tailoring your messages, but keep them simple and tell the truth. Then, don’t forget to listen. It’s likely that you’ll need to continually adjust your message and your efforts depending on the needs you discover.

Simply staying in touch with your teams and providing mass, concise updates through a variety of mediums such as daily video/audio huddles, virtual town hall meeting, emails asking for employee concerns (and answering them), social media accounts, or internal group text functions can be extremely useful in leading through crisis.

Lesson 4: Focus people on group goals, not on themselves

When crisis hits, people tend to focus on themselves more, which makes it next to impossible to lead an organization through a crisis.

In order to unite his team toward a group goal, Rothstein got his team focused on one of their core responsibilities — supporting the Japanese people. To shift his people’s energy away from their own fear, and towards a greater goal, he sent out busses full of volunteers from the base daily for 74 days to help the Japanese community in any way possible. Let your organization’s mission guide you in getting your team refocused on a group goal.

Lesson 5: Aggressively realign and reprioritize resources

During crisis, it’s important to build temporary, adaptive, cross-functional teams to address arising needs. This means you’ll have to share people across the daily operations and the crisis efforts. To easily communicate and facilitate collaboration, create an operation center or a 24/7 chat for your team leaders for instance.

Also, instead of having your hand in every decision and slowing the process down, empower your team leaders to make decisions.

Your organizational values should never change, so slow down enough to think about how those values should be guiding the actions of your teams. But in times of crisis priorities can change overnight. So, adjust and communicate as priorities shift, so that your team leaders can align as well.

Lesson 6: Be intentional about creative thinking to solve problems

According to Rothstein, sometimes just encouraging people to be creative helps them come up with more inventive solutions. Instead of enforcing regular rules, processes, and organizational responsibilities, if feasible, you and your teams should step out of the box to think about challenges differently and find solutions quickly.

Lesson 7: Expect some things to go wrong – Fix them and drive on

When leading through crisis, most of us are in uncharted territory doing things we aren’t trained to do—something will inevitably go wrong. Expect issues, figure out lessons learned, retrain if necessary, but don’t dwell on mistakes – move on to solve the next problem.

Lesson 8: Do the right thing

When the stakes are high, and you’re under extreme pressure, cutting corners can be alluring. Do not fall into this trap. This type of behavior from leaders makes employees think the organization never cared about its values. Rothstein’s strategy for staying honest and on course is that every decision he makes should be able to stay in the light of day. This doesn’t mean every single decision DOES see the light of day, but he should be able to explain any decision he has made without shame.

The way forward

Many of us are wondering when the pandemic will be over, and how we can be positive leaders when we aren’t sure either about the future. In Rothstein’s experience, there is no set ending to many crises. “One day, there [will be] just more normalcy than there [will be] crisis,” he explained. “I get myself to a place where I have hope, and that way, when I express that hope to others, it’s congruent with what I’m believing.”

Interested in keeping the leadership conversations going? Join us for our next Partnership event as Army interrogator, Eric Maddox, shares the surprising tactical power of empathy-based listening.