A Crisis Leadership Playbook

Like everyone reading this, I have had to adapt to new realities and life and business rhythms that are radically different than they were pre-pandemic.

Along with testing our public health and economic systems in unprecedented ways, the COVID-19 pandemic will test leaders at all levels in all organizations as never before. When I talk about the ideas in my book, The Next Level, one of the first things I usually say is that the next level is any leadership situation which requires different results. Since different results require different actions, leaders need to make adjustments of picking up new behaviors and mindsets while letting go of others to create the results that are expected or hoped for. Well, here we are. The apple cart has been turned completely upside down and leaders everywhere are going to need to make some big changes to restore health and well-being for the people in their organizations, their communities, their nations and our planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how what I already know about leadership applies and what else needs to be in the mix for all of us in leadership roles now that the world has changed so dramatically. The ideas I’m sharing in this post are the basics of a crisis leadership playbook that is something of a work in progress. I’ll update my thoughts as I learn more but wanted to go ahead and share what I have now in the hope that there is something in here that may be helpful to you and the people you love and lead.

One thing I know for sure is that effective leadership in this new era begins with effective self-management. That’s the first of what I believe are three leadership imperatives:

  • Manage yourself.
  • Leverage your team.
  • Engage your colleagues.

You can think of these three as forming a pyramid with managing yourself at the base. Nothing else works as well as it could or should if leaders don’t manage themselves effectively.

So, what does it mean to do that well? Back in the old days (February 2020 and before), I focused on four domains of routines—physical, mental, relational and spiritual—that are the building blocks of effective self-management. I practice what I preach with those routines but, like everyone who is reading this, have had to learn over the past couple of weeks how to adapt those routines to the new realities of social distancing and life and business operating rhythms that are radically different than what they were pre-pandemic. I’ve always talked about optimal routines and “good enough for today” routines. For example, my optimal physical routine is a 75-minute hot yoga class in a room with 60 other people and a great instructor. That’s not happening now so, like a lot of you, I’m using online yoga and fitness classes. Not my old optimal but good enough for today and it’s helping me be at my best.

What I haven’t spent as much time thinking about over the years that I am definitely thinking about now is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There’s about a 100% chance you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t looked at it lately, Google it and give yourself a refresh. The base of Maslow’s hierarchy is physiological needs like air, water, food, shelter, sleep and clothing. (If Maslow were alive today, I imagine he’d add toilet paper to that list.) The next level of his pyramid covers safety needs like personal security, employment, resources and health. The pandemic strikes right at the heart of this level of needs. The third level of the hierarchy is love and belonging with characteristics like friendship, intimacy, family and a sense of connection. Have you noticed how many FaceTime or Zoom calls you’ve been on the past couple of weeks to check in with family and friends? That’s because, even in the age of social distancing, you have a need for love and belonging. The top two levels of Maslow’s pyramid are self esteem and self actualization. My sense is a lot of high achieving leaders are not as immediately concerned about these two as they were a month ago. Other, more basic, needs have taken priority.

And that brings me to a new way that I’m thinking about leadership in these early days of the pandemic. As the accompanying picture illustrates, it’s about the way great leadership radiates across concentric circles.

  • The center and smallest circle, but a very important one, is you. To be any good for anyone else, you have to take care of yourself and manage yourself effectively. Your personal routines may need to be modified but you still need ones that will help you be at your best.
  • The next circle is occupied by your family and friends. You want to meet their physiological, safety and relational needs because you love them and care for them. When you do that at whatever level you can, you then free up mental and emotional bandwidth that you need to serve and lead your team.
  • Your team is where your leverage is. When you lead and serve them well, you can do great things together. The first task is to do whatever you can to help them meet their own basic needs. The second is to role model the approach you want them to take. Remember, as a leader, you control the weather. However you show up is completely predictive of how your team shows up.
  • From there, your work is about how you engage with your colleagues, your partners and other stakeholders and, ultimately, the customers and citizens that rely on your organization.

I’ll wrap up for now with some basic building blocks that, along with self-care and caring for others, are essential for leading effectively in a time of crisis:

Establish clear short-term priorities: Long-term visibility is impossible to come by right now, so focus yourself, your team, colleagues and other stakeholders on what you’re trying to solve for in the next 90 days. What, then, do you collectively need to do in the next 30 days to create that 90-day picture? What can you and your team do this week to support the 30-day agenda?

Communicate, communicate, communicate: The old cliché has never been more true than it is now—you can’t over communicate (doing it virtually as much as possible of course). As you organize and execute on your communications strategy, consider using William Bridges’ Four P’s checklist:

  • Purpose: What are we trying to do, why are we doing it and who are we doing it for?
  • Picture: What will success look like in the timeframe we can envision?
  • Plan: What’s our plan for doing that?
  • Part to Play: What are the roles and responsibilities of everyone on the team? Where are the interconnects and who has accountability for what?

Create more connection and touch points than usual: As the leader, be super intentional about keeping everyone informed, encouraging and creating opportunities for support and celebrating the wins along the way. There will be wins to celebrate.

So, those are my current thoughts on running a crisis leadership playbook. What resonates with you? What would you add? What’s working for you? What else is on your mind?

Please let me know. I’m here to support you.

If you’d like to go deeper on what I’ve written about in this post, subscribe here for a short video series I’ll be sharing in the coming days.