Leadership Lessons Learned During a Crisis

Leaders are accustomed to being in control. If you want to see leaders feel defeated, place them in a situation in which they feel powerless. Usually, you don’t see a crisis coming, so you cannot forecast its devastating impact. You may not see it as it begins, and worse yet, you often can’t predict when it will end.  

What is a crisis? According to the Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, a crisis is: 

  • The turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever. 

  • The decisive moment (as in a literary plot). 

  • An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially, one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome. 

The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the awareness of mental illness as a real physical illness, not a character weakness or a choice. People are quarantined in their homes, schools and churches are closed, creating limited human contact. In my career of 38 years, leadership challenges related to mental health during a crisis were not on any political radar. Currently, the mental health of all involved worldwide must be considered, and not just those on the frontlines. 

The pandemic has put most leaders in a difficult position. They not only didn’t see it coming, but the end is not predicted anytime soon. Organizations are faced with the difficult decision to furlough or even dismiss part of their workforce. The firefighters who are active are concerned with contracting the disease or taking it back home with them. 

So, what kind of things as a leader do you need to know? 

Have A Trusted Group Of Peers To Vent With About The System. 

During difficult times the most incredible leaders will step up, sometimes from the most unlikely spots, and they will stand out like bright lights. Choose your advisors, get them on board, empower them to act, and then support their decisions, especially when those decisions aren’t popular with the people you serve or those who serve with you. During a crisis, you are like a parent: you do what you think is right for your people even if they don’t understand or are angered by that decision. As long as your heart is in protecting their well-being, whether financial, physical or emotional, you are heading down the right path. If you want applause in a crisis, please turn the reins over to somebody else who will solve the problem, because you won’t.  

Don’t promise people it’s going to get better exactly when you think it will, because if it’s delayed, your credibility will be gone. Positively forecast the future, but build in some cushion, so people have a chance to adjust to whatever this new “normal” is that they call life. 

Take Care Of You, And That Means Physically, Emotionally, And Spiritually. 

Sometimes you have to know when enough is enough and make yourself the priority, not the crisis. Have you ever seen the check-engine light go on in your car and dismissed it, figuring it’s probably just a sensor malfunction and no big deal? If you continue to ignore it, your engine might seize. If you had only paid attention to the light from the beginning, you would have saved a lot of wear, tear and expense.  

Most leaders, when forced to the “wall,” try to go to another level that allows them to push through until the crisis is resolved. It has been my experience that most leaders are Type A personalities and perfectionists, myself included. We ignore that personal check-engine light many times to our detriment physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It can destroy you. The key is to take care of the stress that light is indicating as soon as you recognize it and get yourself some help.  

Know When To Take The Cape Off.  

You may want to put the cape on for another fly around, again and again, but know when to take it off and let someone else lead. You need to be comfortable enough in your own skin to be a follower at times. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to sometimes give your cape away. Realize that although the cape is a wonderful tool under best-case scenarios, it can also be your worst enemy when you begin to disappear under it, lose yourself, and not take care of yourself. That is when it is critical to take the cape off and seek professional counseling to clarify the purpose of the cape and its limitations. It is not a complicated process, but one that allows you to get healthy again and return to a leadership role. Choosing to ignore that you need some help from professionals to straighten out your cape can eventually lead to losing your leadership position. Even more devastating is the possibility of disconnecting from your family and suffering serious health implications that may be long-term.  

Surround Yourself With Good People Who Will Tell You The Truth In All Situations Without Fear Of Retribution.  

Sometimes the emperor truly has no clothes on, and if it’s me, I want to know that. 

Be Okay With Not Having A Blueprint.

I think probably the hardest time to lead is in the middle of a crisis like this pandemic. There is no blueprint, no attack plan based on previous experience. This is shooting into the dark and hoping you hit something. There is concern about every decision you make having a domino effect. While that's not unique to this situation, it certainly is magnified when you're looking at a crisis that is worldwide and people of every country are suffering and dying. You cannot approach a crisis as you would train for a sprint. In the case of a sprint, you identify the target and go all out to finish. Instead, COVID-19 must be examined and attacked like a marathon. Most leaders, including me, are okay with sprints. Identify the problem, find the solution, implement the solution, problem fixed, and on to the next. In a crisis, you must go slow and be very methodical. Each day, what appears to be the problem can change, disappear, or increase in intensity. The stress level is not dispelled in a day or two, but sometimes over years, as with the 9/11 attacks. The mental and physical toll this kind of marathon takes on leaders is indescribable. Lean on the intelligent command presence leaders and learn how to hold and keep obstructionists at bay by giving them meaningless tasks to keep them busy. That may sound harsh, but if you've ever operated an emergency operation center or a boardroom, you learn quickly that it's more important to know who you don't want in the center instead of who you do. 

Leaders do not have a crystal ball and in a crisis many times feel blinded by the constant presence of uncertainty. Trusting that you do not, and cannot do it alone, taking care of yourself and finding the best of the best to surround yourself with provides the light to lead through the crisis that faces you. 

Patrick J. Kenny has been a member of the fire service for 38 years, a chief officer for over 25 years, just having retired as the fire chief in Western Springs, Illinois. He recently authored the International Bestseller 'Taking the Cape Off: How to Lead Through Mental Illness, Unimaginable Grief and Loss.'  For more information, go to https://patrickjkenny.com

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