Leading Through Crisis

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Leading Through Crisis

Business leaders and their organizations have had to deal with the stress of extreme severe weather in Arkansas. 

It’s tempting in stressful times to go to ground and focus on what’s urgent. But responding to stressful and traumatic events can’t only be about focusing on the single issue in front of us. And companies that are prepared are most likely to fare the best under fire.

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In times of crisis, organizations look to their leaders for connection and support. And they take their cues from their leaders. And it is a leader’s ability to be responsive (not reactive), focused, empathetic and clear that makes the difference in how an organization performs in an emergency.

First and foremost is that word “respond,” as opposed to “react.” In the moment a tornado, fire or any traumatic experience is happening, we often feel a need to react to keep people and property safe. That means herding everyone into the basement, fighting the fire — an immediate response to protect lives and property. But once that moment of truth is past, leadership calls for a measured and clear response. The process requires not only an ability to triage recovery options, but to undertake the care of those affected with equal focus and energy.

Readiness matters. Do you have emergency plans? Are employees clear about how to direct staff and customers in a disaster? Have you practiced or had a surprise drill? 

These are as important for you as a leader as they are for staff. One business owner I worked with asked a trusted friend to come to the business at a random time and announce a fire drill. How well did staffers remember their training on how to deal with customers? How about dealing with equipment and incremental hazards? 

Yes, a drill like this creates business interruption and perhaps a loss in revenue. But the owner explained to customers why they did it, offered “thank you” coupons and got far more positive social media buzz than complaints.

Self-management matters. In a real emergency, your staff will take their cues from whoever is most present and clear. If you panic, they will panic and that panic will run downstream to everyone on the property. Your ability to stay grounded in a crisis is critical. Staff, and even customers, will take their cues from you.

Lastly, make time to debrief after the immediate impact has passed. Ask your team, “What worked in our response to this crisis?” “What would we want to do differently if we are tested this way again?” and “How do we best prepare ourselves for that possibility?”

This kind of planning and processing often takes a back seat to day-to-day challenges. Some of us will never have to deal with significant events that frighten employees and threaten the business. But as we saw on March 31, the randomness of the storm meant it could have hit anywhere.

Effective leaders focus on both organizing the immediate tasks at hand and on the well-being and emotional state of those who experience the effects of the circumstances. In a crisis, that is a big ask no matter who is leading.

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is a credentialed leadership and executive coach. He trained for coaching at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.