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Leading in Times of Crisis

Show your leadership strength by helping your employees--and your company--survive stressful times.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks, it seems my employees have gone into a funk, even though we are miles from New York and Washington, DC. Their minds no longer seem to be on their work. We won't survive unless they start to focus once again. What can I do?

A: You are describing a problem that is showing up in small and large businesses across America. Even though you are far from New York and DC, it appears the terrorists were able to roam the country at will. Our sense of security has been assaulted. We receive about 1,000 letters and e-mails a week and have yet to see a change in mood since that sad and tragic day.

If you will recall last year's presidential election, within a few days we all received e-mail jokes and cartoons about the results, the candidates and even the voters. While it was certainly serious business, the people put a humorous spin on it. We don't expect to begin receiving sick jokes about this event. The tone has remained constant--lots of prayers and patriotic themes. Yet, in spite of this, we all have work to do.

May we respectfully suggest you take a look at yourself first? Employees often reflect the boss. And, if you have allowed a depressed demeanor to infiltrate your behavior, your employees will "feel" free to mimic you. But, whether or not your public face has changed, this problem will not go away overnight. After all, elected and appointed officials are persistently telling us this will be a long fight, more people will perish and further attacks are possible. So you're right to be concerned, and we believe you can take steps to get your employees, and yourself, back on track.

Next Step
Nothing could have prepared us for the horror of September 11, but now is the time to think about your ability as a business owner to handle a crisis. Get help with The Essential Guide to Managing Corporate Crises: A Step-By-Step Handbook for Surviving Major Catastrophes by Ian I. Mitroff, Christine M. Pearson and L. Katherine Harrington.

The one thing you don't want to do at this time, less so than ever, is hassle your employees. Like all of us, they are experiencing a lot of fear. The attack was so devastating, so complete, so unexpected and implemented so "professionally," your employees are deeply worried about what follows. They are wondering if the government that may have failed them on September 11 can protect them and their families in the future. They are also aware that even before this terrible attack, business was slowing down and layoffs were increasing. They have many negative events striking at them every day. Your employees will not take kindly to remarks from you that they aren't working hard enough. Like every other employer in America, especially business owners like you, you must be the best leader you possibly can be. Your employees will be looking for a calming voice at work. You must be part boss, parent, cleric and shrink; you will need nerves of steel and a heart of gold--so what's new.

And, as we said before, your first step is to look at yourself. Make sure you don't bring your fears to work. While you don't have to be the life of the party, you have to reassure your employees that, in the larger scheme of things, current events are a bump in the road--painful to be sure, but ones that will be overcome as surely as night follows day. Keep your door open to your employees. Be liberal with time off. Let them know you are there to talk with them anytime--give them a way to reach you at night and on weekends. Encourage them, in a positive manner, not to "work hard," but to do the best work they can. You are counting on them, as are their fellow employees, their families and your customers--indeed, the entire country is counting on one another. To the extent that you can afford it, make counseling available. If you are not able to provide one-on-one therapy, perhaps you can sponsor a group. Remind them frequently that you love them like family and are there for them.

As your employees regain their confidence in our ability to overcome that horrific day, their work habits will return to normal, and remembering that you never wavered in your support for them will pay dividends you can't imagine today.

Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.