3 Keys to Leading a Team in a Crisis

Experience in business and the military shows three key factors: preemptive planning, building team trust and strengthening resilience.


Being a leader is difficult, and even more challenging in a crisis. Given the great challenges presented by COVID-19, it can feel like we’re caught in a never-ending crisis, or at least one crisis after another.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to those we lead, and, though we may initially find ourselves thrown off balance by a crisis, the mark of a true leader is the ability to recover quickly and implement effective decisions. 

In my years leading both in business and the military, I have found that three key factors can help during crises: preemptive planning, building team trust and strengthening resilience.

Whether you are in the middle of a crisis, or waiting for the next shoe to drop, consider these tactics to ensure you are better-equipped to stay calm under pressure.

Don’t be caught off guard; plan preemptively 

Crises typically catch people off guard because they are unanticipated events. As leaders, we must expect the unexpected. The best way to thrive during a crisis is to have a solid plan in advance.

Meet with your team on a periodic basis for regular brainstorming sessions. Take time to consider all eventualities, especially those that seem improbable.

One of my favorite military exercises for preemptive planning is called “wargaming." Members of different staff sections and backgrounds attack proposed plans, assess vulnerabilities, identify risks and expose shortfalls. The plan with the greatest probability of success wins.

Take the strongest plans from these assessments to create a comprehensive plan of action, including backup plans and branch plans, so you can have protocol for what you and your team will do when the next crisis occurs.

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Build team trust through effective communication

To lead effectively during high stress and uncertainty, leaders must be able to trust their teams, and the team must trust the leaders.  

Trust begins with communication. Not only must a leader be able to make decisions and explain to their team the big picture of what must be done, they must also be able to listen to their team in real time and assess what people need to most effectively do their jobs.

A crisis makes communication much more difficult than usual, so it’s important to develop clear effective communication in advance. 

Make sure you are taking time to hear your team and provide channels by which they can report small problems before they become big ones. Also, provide opportunities for them to share what they know so everyone can grow.

When people trust that they are heard, they will more effectively communicate under pressure.

Strengthening resilience even in chaos

The truth is, nobody performs efficiently in chaos. But, by developing resilience, you can more quickly and efficiently come back to your center when thrown off by a crisis.

To develop resilience, there are two important considerations. 

The first is identifying limiting mindsets. During a crisis it can be very tempting to turn toward negative thoughts like “Everything is broken,” “This will never end,” or “This is all my fault.” Not only are these thoughts not true, they can inhibit your ability to rebound.

The second consideration is proper perspective. As a leader, you are setting the tone for proper response during a crisis. It’s important for you to manage your stress, mindfully communicate and magnify positivity. 

By developing resilience, you will be able to come out of the fog of chaos sooner, are able to take in information as it comes and can identify when there are opportunities to innovate and adapt to the changes at hand.

See also: How to Pursue Innovation in a Crisis

Crisis management going forward

Even though crises are unexpected, we can still do our best to prepare for when they inevitably arrive.

Through preemptive planning, you will know the first actions to take next time a crisis comes. If you didn’t plan for that crisis, then you’ll add it to your plan and be better prepared next time.

By developing trust with your team, you will forge stronger bonds that can withstand the strain of a crisis and more efficiently communicate to resolve problems as they arise.

With resilience, you will be able to effectively rebound from the initial shock and ensure proper perspective through the continuing challenges.

Though they are undeniably challenging, crises create many opportunities, even if it is only the opportunity for us to shine as leaders and set an example for our teams by staying calm and effective when everything around us seems to be falling apart. This isn’t always easy, but with practice we can all get better and take care of our most important asset, our team.

Jenn Donahue

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Jenn Donahue

Jenn Donahue is a leadership coach, engineer and entrepreneur with 25 years as a member of the U.S. Navy. She is a founder of JL Donahue Engineering, a globally recognized boutique seismic analysis and engineering firm.

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