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How to Lead Through a Crisis

April 24, 2020
By Wayne OlsonApril 24, 2020,,

The First Crash

In 2001 I was working in the tech industry during the dot-com crash and subsequent economic recession.  Shortly after the wheels started falling off the US economy, the stock market, and my company’s book-to-bill ratio, I received a promotion to a top leadership position.  This was great for my career, but the promotion came with a caveat:  I needed to start wearing suits to work.  Wait, what?

Leading through a crisis

The tech bubble pop was a hard and sudden shock to my company (similar to coronavirus in 2020), and it was obvious to the entire organization that a correction – in the form of layoffs – was coming.  Everyone was nervous and on edge.  What do people do when they’re nervous and on edge?  They look to their leaders for reassurance and guidance.  This was my manager’s explanation for the suits - since everyone will now be watching me all the time, actually looking like an executive will help to calm the nervous employee base.  That comment was my ‘lightbulb moment.’

All Eyes on the Future

As I continued to ponder the suit requirement, I thought about some of my own anxiety experiences.  When an airplane gets rocked by coffee-cup-jumping-out-of-the-tray turbulence, I instinctively look around for the flight attendants.  If they’re not nervous then neither am I.  Why?  Because in that situation they are my ‘leaders’ – they have the wisdom and experience to know if the turbulence is just part of life at 35,000 feet, or if there’s really something to be worried about.  Or how about now, in 2020, when our economic and government underpinnings are being violently shaken to the core by the coronavirus.  Who are we looking to for reassurance and guidance?  Political leaders, health care leaders, religious leaders.  It’s not because the news media is out of ideas that the US President is on TV 24/7; it’s because that’s where a lot of people are instinctively turning for reassurance and guidance.

The idea that – due to title and role - I was being watched was discomforting at first, but then it grew on me, and eventually took up permanent residence in my consciousness.  Since that day in 2000, I’ve had multiple opportunities to practice being watched: plant closures, layoffs, cell phone policy changes, etc.  I have now come to believe this is a key element of leadership – when something goes awry, a strong leader wants to be the figure others look to.  It’s what you do next, however, that separates the leaders from the narcissists.

What to Do Now

Now that you know everyone is watching you, especially in times of crisis, do you need to replenish your wardrobe like me?  No, that was merely a symbolic gesture intended to get me thinking about how to lead through difficult times. (It worked!)  With the experience of surviving through multiple crises, I can now simply share with you what I’ve learned.  These are some behaviors you can begin to embrace that will provide the reassurance guidance people are looking for.

Be visible.  After a shock event such as a broad layoff, being visible is the most important thing you can do to calm employees.  Engage with your team, walk around, talk to them.  Even if this isn’t your normal habit, do it anyway.  But how do you do that now when the threat of COVID-19 is forcing many people to work from home?  Find other ways to ‘be visible.’  Even though my daughter’s high school is closed, her school’s principal is doing an admirable job of being visible.  He’s sending emails several times per week, each one starting off with a strong ‘connection’ phrase, such as “I’ve been thinking about you…”   This is followed by a summary of the current information as he knows it, and strong reassurance that at some point things will return to normal.

Be vulnerable.  It’s important to ask your team members how they’re doing, or how the current situation has affected them and their families.  Point them toward the resources your company has available – or will soon be available – to help.  It’s also okay to let people know you are also worried and that you don’t have all the answers, but you are committed to help steer the organization through the situation.

Be “decisible”.  The worst thing your team can hear from you is, “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this crisis.” What your team needs to hear from you is, “based on the situation and facts available to us right now, we are deciding to do ‘x,’ but if the situation or facts change, we will be flexible enough to consider modifying the decision.”  Decisive + Flexible = Decisible.

Are the above tips relevant only during a crisis?  Of course not – it’s wise to practice these behaviors all the time!  Remember the old adage, a person reveals their true self when no one is watching.  Making the personal investment to hone and sharpen these skills will serve you well as a leader during these and future extraordinary times.


About Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.


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