I've Led My Ukrainian Team Throughout the War. Here Are 6 Leadership Rules to Follow in a Crisis. Use these six war-tested rules to help you navigate any hardship you might face as a leader.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Since Feb. 24, 2022, our usual course of work has changed dramatically. Instead of experimenting with new content formats for fun and easy learning, we had to evacuate our Ukrainian team at Headway to safe regions in Ukraine and abroad. This experience has become the most challenging crisis for our company, and the times of Covid-19 now seem only a preparation for the harsh military reality of today. But now, more than half a year after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, our team has stabilized; we had zero downtime in operations and even accelerated our growth.
I believe decisive leadership is the secret to living through a crisis and adapting to a new reality — and my company's managers, as well as the broader team, fully coped with this challenge. These five rules of crisis leadership have helped our core team and each employee maintain business despite the horrors of war.
Rule #1: Foster a culture of leadership at all levels
Lead at all levels — that means each team member must take ownership of their work. But how do you achieve this when most people usually want somebody to tell them what to do? The answer is in the ladder of control principle described in the book Turn the Ship Around! by David Marquet.
Its main point is to push authority to as low a level as possible by encouraging people to take responsibility, and its main secret is a slight language change your team usually uses. If your employees ask a manager what to do, all the burden lies on the manager's shoulders. It may be easier and faster in the short term, but the team feels less responsible, engaged, and motivated in the long term. We ask people to start their requests with "I intend to..." and add relevant information so that all the manager has to say is, "Very well." It makes a real difference. People start taking ownership, become more accountable and involved, and turn to the real driving force behind a business. This leadership strategy works at all levels — from top managers to juniors.
By fostering moving up the ladder of control, you build a culture of leadership where leaders bring up new leaders. This rule is first and foremost; without it, we wouldn't pass the war test.
Related: Ownership: The Ultimate Motivator
Rule #2: Focus on people
All crucial business decisions and growth are the merits of the people, not a strategy or instrument. That's why any wise leader should invest in the team, their growth and their feeling of safety to achieve the company's growth. Research shows that psychological safety at work, when people can act and speak up without fear, is a crucial driver for employee efficiency, healthy relationships at work, and greater motivation. Ultimately, it's the bottom line for effective decision-making.
But a severe crisis can mess up all your efforts to build psychological safety at your company, so you must put everything that doesn't help people stabilize on the back burner for some time and focus on supporting your team. First people, then business. Think about the most critical needs of your employees — health issues, economic challenges or even a life threat — and try to meet them as much as possible.
That's why we centered on people's security during the first day of the war. We evacuated our Ukrainian team with their families to safe places in the west of Ukraine and provided them with temporary accommodation. After a couple of weeks, we relocated part of our team to Poland. After providing security to all our Ukrainian team, we launched a series of meetings with psychologists and team gatherings to share feelings and personal experiences of the war.
All of that helped us go through and adapt to a challenging period of shock and get back to a stable mode of operation, as far as possible, under the current conditions.
Rule #3: Establish priorities and act promptly
During a crisis, the strategies of having a long-term vision and planning for that future don't work. You need to come up with a new tactic according to the new reality and be ready to change your plans at any time. However, it's essential to establish business priorities and keep them focused. Sometimes, it means you need to give up some business directions or cut them down significantly, even if you've been working on them passionately for a long time.
We haven't stopped providing learning services for our customers for a single day, but our Ukrainian team couldn't work as usual during the first week of the war. As we directed our resources and efforts toward the safety of our team members and their families, not knowing what would happen next, we held back from investing in new projects. Instead, we decided to focus on actions that would help our business stay afloat during the crisis and continue generating profits.
Those reactive decisions helped us to go through turbulent times for business, and after a couple of months, when all operations were stable, we picked up new projects again.
Rule #4: Practice integrative awareness and keep bounded optimism
In other words, stay confident, don't give up hope, but remain in touch with reality. How do you implement it in practice when you lead the company in unprecedentedly uncertain conditions and constantly feel anxious? There is no perfect recipe, but carefully observing the fast-changing reality and your feelings about it can help keep you relatively calm and not spread your anxiety to the team. According to McKinsey, this approach is called integrative awareness. It allows leaders of all levels to perceive even the most complicated challenges as issues they can solve and lessons all can learn.
Another critical term for this rule is bounded optimism. Again, it is about being sensitive to severe crisis circumstances but keeping up a positive vision for the future and giving the team a sense of purpose and hope during the crisis.
Rule #5: Maintain transparent communication
A crisis is a period when you have more questions than answers, and the best way to communicate about it is to be candid. Tell your team not only what you know, but also what you don't know. Be clear about the current situation and your next moves to tackle it, and don't be afraid to appear vulnerable. Though you hold responsibility for your employees, you'll give them much more hope and support by acting like an actual human to whom they can relate.
Eventually, acknowledging problems and openly communicating your concerns is much more effective than suppression; it allows the team to respond to emerging challenges and create fresh and potent ideas to deal with them.
Rule #6: Adapt rapidly
You can never completely get ready for a crisis, even if you have undergone it once. That's why it's important to develop several plans and be prepared for things to get out of hand. In this case, you need to get a hold of yourself, find strength and stability, and start your new plan to fight the crisis. Accepting that things can go wrong ultimately increases the level of resilience and chances to remain flexible and adaptable.
In Ukraine, we have ascertained the truth of these words in our own experience. A couple of months before Feb. 24, the information field in Ukraine and worldwide was tense with news of a possible Russian attack. In response, our team prepared several contingency plans and various scenarios — from the most positive to the absolute worst.
Going through a crisis with your team is a crash test and a game-changing experience for your company. And the best you can do to meet it prepared is to start cultivating leadership in your team at all levels, invest in people's growth, and, of course, work on your awareness, adaptability, and resilience. Take such learning as a priority, and you'll be prepared practically for anything. As Nelson Mandela put it: "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world."