Learning to Lead During Times of Crisis

Learning to Lead During Times of Crisis

The most able leaders inspire trust and communicate with empathy and clear facts.

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Learning to Lead During Times of Crisis

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Two years ago, when Covid-19 first arrived it brought new requirements of leaders. Remote work created new routines and the need for flexibility. Many leaders rose to the challenge, finding new ways to build up their teams, maintain customer focus, and meet financial goals despite turbulence and disruption. This’s what Bain & Company partner James Allen referred to this as a “dress rehearsal” for a new world in which executive teams would face a prolonged period of uncertainty, requiring a different style of leadership—one characterized by increased empathy, transparency and adaptability.

Just how long no one could have predicted, nor could they have known it would lead into another dramatic moment of uncertainty, the human tragedy and economic disaster of the war in Ukraine.

But this is the reality of the world today: constant change. Technological, demographic and macroeconomic disruptions will only continue to change the world. Leaders who use these current crises to reflect, learn and adapt will be best positioned to emerge stronger and more able to respond to the unknown challenges ahead.

Going forward, multiple stakeholders will define success:

  • customers whose problems the business solves;
  • employees who feel secure and inspired to learn, grow and help the business achieve its purpose;
  • shareholders who value enduring success over short-lived profits; and
  • communities that admire the contributions of the business to their welfare.

Recent uncertainty has pushed executives to strengthen their leadership ability as individuals, with teams, and in the broader framework of their organizations. To recognize these changes and make the most of them, senior executives can start by asking themselves three questions.

1) How have I personally changed?

The most adept leaders know themselves well. They’re conscious of their state of mind and the factors influencing their behavior. They also recognize that in turbulent times, an open mindset and willingness to learn from experience are assets. The hallmark behaviors of a learning mindset include:

  • Managing by trusting and enabling others. Research shows leaders who trust and empower their teams unleash powerful potential. Compared with employees at low-trust companies, those working for high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout, according to Paul J. Zak’s “The Neuroscience of Trust.
  • Active listening. Ask questions, not only about the business but also about how people are doing. Connect and create inclusive experiences, so people feel they’re part of a bigger group, mission and valuable purpose.
  • Willingness to show vulnerability. The new world is less certain, and you as a leader won’t have all the answers. It’s more credible to acknowledge that you don’t have a crystal ball.
  • Acting on behalf of the greater good. Crises test our sense of purpose. Covid-19 prompted many capable leaders to reassess their own purpose and that of their companies. What makes a firm distinctive for its customers, employees and society? What’s a good corporate citizen? Many executives have taken a fresh and honest look at the company’s mission and reflected on the firm’s impact on society.

2) How have my team interactions changed?

Teams that trust their leaders outperform. And the qualities that inspire trust are credibility, reliability and intimacy. Many leaders struggle in particular with intimacy. A seven-year study with more than 72,000 respondents by Trusted Advisor Associates showed only 18% of people feel intimacy is their greatest strength, though it’s the most important factor in building trust.

Teams in which members get to know and understand one another well are inherently more productive and high performing. How can companies foster stronger connections among team members in the months to come? Many video meetings still start with five minutes in small breakouts of two or three people. Often there’s no agenda for these breakouts; the only goal is to catch up with someone on your team for five minutes. It started as a Covid experiment, but it has proved powerful in strengthening trust and affiliation.

3) How am I engaging my organization differently than before?

There’s a science behind communicating during times of stress. Mental noise reduces the ability to process information by about 80%. People’s attention spans shrink to just 12 minutes or less. They want to know that you care before they care what you know. As a result, it’s important to keep messages short, lead with empathy, and communicate via trusted messengers.

It’s important to address the fundamental need for change and give managers and workers confidence about the future. Indeed, strong leaders are able to inspire and stimulate hope, to paint a picture of where you’re headed and why it will be a worthwhile journey.

Talented leaders are taking stock of what they’ve learned during the past two years of disruption. Those who increase trust throughout their ranks and put empathy, transparency and humility first will be better prepared to steer through unexpected turns in the road ahead.

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The most able leaders inspire trust and communicate with empathy and clear facts.