Six Healthy Ways to Lead in a Crisis
“A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry. It gives a chance, an opportunity, to choose well or to choose badly.” – Desmond Tutu, human rights and anti-apartheid activist
Like millions of students around the globe, Daniel Goldberg was at home in mid-March, instead of at school. The California teenager and his siblings were following physical distancing instructions, but Goldberg wanted to help. He also saw his father, an emergency physician, working on the front lines.
Days later, Goldberg created Zoomers to Boomers — a free service that enables seniors and high-risk individuals to complete an online list and receive next-day grocery delivery from high school students. The student volunteers wear N95 masks and gloves, and follow strict guidelines for safety and sanitation.
Goldberg launched the program in Santa Barbara with a team of 13 friends. About two weeks later, Zoomers to Boomers had grown to serve 3,000 people in six U.S. cities — and counting. When the crisis hit, Goldberg wasn’t a founder or CEO. He didn’t run a company or manage a team. But now, he’s a true leader.
Choose how you want to lead
Writers and philosophers have always said that trying times bring out the best and the worst in people. As the world struggles to cope right now, leaders have a choice: We can panic and pace, or we can channel the very best versions of ourselves, while supporting those who need us most.
To be clear, I’m not sugar-coating the crisis. Thousands are dying, economies are collapsing, and there’s deep human suffering. We all know the realities. We don’t know when the world can return to “normal,” or if it ever will. As illness surrounds us, we need to find healthy ways to lead.
I don’t have all the answers, but as I steer my company, JotForm, through this unfamiliar storm, these are the principles I want to follow.
1. Reconnect with your purpose.
“In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Meaning is strength. Our survival may depend on our seeking and finding it.” – Viktor E. Frankl
Formerly simple acts, like grocery shopping, have become matters of life and death. In this climate, work can feel trivial. For example, our company makes easy-to-use web forms. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had moments where I questioned the value of our product: Should we still worry about forms in the midst of a global crisis?
In short, yes. Our mission is to help people and organizations be more productive. As our users work to preserve their livelihoods, to care for friends, family, clients and neighbors, and to keep businesses and essential services afloat, productivity matters more than ever. We can be a small beacon of support in dark, choppy waters.
As a leader, it’s time to revisit your mission: Why do you do what you do? What makes it essential right now? Remind your teams, repeatedly, why their work matters. We’re all struggling to make sense of an ever-changing threat, and channelling our time, efforts and anxieties into meaningful work can be both comforting and inspiring.
2. Put people first — always.
“In a time of crisis, people want to know that you care, more than they care what you know.”
– Will Rogers
Work can offer meaning, but nothing matters more than people. Period. This crisis continues to dissolve the lines between home and work, family and community. Now more than ever, teams need support and reassurance. They also need flexibility. Many people are suddenly juggling work and childcare, or helping vulnerable family members.
Our routines have been disrupted, and mental health struggles can inhibit sustained focus. Regardless of what happens each day, employees need to know their health and safety comes first. We must provide the tools, resources and information they need. So, be human. Ask questions and re-set expectations as necessary. Focus on results instead of time or standardized schedules.
3. Provide transparent updates.
Your teams may feel anxious and will need more updates than ever. Let them know what’s happening behind the scenes and share your plans. Tell them what to expect moving forward — even if the future is a moving target. Communicate early and often, and then update them again as circumstances change.
Employees don’t need you to pretend everything is rosy, especially when it’s not. But regular check-ins are reassuring during difficult times. As much as your time allows, make yourself available for informal check-ins and questions.
Teams that usually collaborate in close proximity will also need to stay connected. If your staff are using digital technologies for remote work, remind them to look out for each other, too. The bonds they’ve built in the workplace can help them to stay calm and reduce isolation. Rely on your teams and let them rely on you.
4. Model practical optimism.
Research shows that during a challenge or crisis, employees watch their leaders closely for cues about how to respond. Your tone and attitude can have a lasting ripple effect across the organization.
“Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach,” Barbara Z. Larson, Susan R. Vroman, and Erin E. Makarius write in Harvard Business Review, “both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams.”
5. Gather, decide, reflect, adjust.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once told shareholders he believes in making “high-quality, high-velocity decisions.” Now is the perfect time to adopt his approach, in part because we don’t have a choice. No one knows what the next day will bring, let alone the next quarter. We have to make decisions from a half-empty slate.
When details are incomplete, aim to gather as much information as you can, make a choice, then reflect on the results. Assess and adjust accordingly. Repeat. This is a sound strategy at the best of times, but it’s a good reminder that we can still move forward when we don’t have the full picture — and momentum can be powerful.
6. Encourage new contributions.
Crisis can make us freeze in our tracks. Our instinct is often to double down on what works and avoid anything that feels new, or even somewhat risky. It’s a natural response, but it’s not always the healthiest way to lead. For example, research shows that constraints can boost innovation. The pandemic has imposed significant constraints on our lives and work, but it doesn’t have to shut down creativity.
To be clear, you don’t need to “make the most” of a dangerous, distressing time. But watch for glimmers of opportunity. Whether it’s a chance to serve your community or to better support your customers, innovation can thrive in a crisis. Ask your employees for suggestions, too. Encourage contribution and fresh ideas. Let teams tell you what they need, how the organization can help and what’s on their minds. We’re all seeing the world with new eyes, in good ways and bad, and our insights may prove to be invaluable.
Finally, remember that we're all in uncharted waters. No one has the answers — and you’re not alone if you’re struggling. We don’t know what’s around the corner, but we can choose to lead with courage and, most importantly, with care.