University News

A Blueprint for Leading in a Crisis

by Steve Gladis, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

COVID-19 has changed the game for everyone, all at once. Everyone’s brain is on high alert—flight, fight or freeze … mostly flight and freeze these days. And, in times of emergency, we look to leaders to set the tone. We have seen some public examples that work and others that don’t. For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at daily press conferences acts like an authentic leader by reacting to the crisis both rationally and compassionately.

Primary Leadership Actions

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how to prepare for the worst by doing what’s right to help our people and customers. In a crisis, leaders need to first employ three primary leadership actions: Establishing trust, reinforcing cultural norms, and adapting strategy. These actions are most important at the beginning of the crisis and also exist in the background like an operating system throughout the three-part leadership cycle: Reaction, Recovery, and Reimagining.

Establish Trust. Based on my research on leadership (The Trusted Leader), trust is essential for leaders to succeed. Trust is composed of Character, Competence and Compassion—the Trust Triangle. Character is about being and doing—honesty, courage, communication skills and more. Competence is about knowledge—self-awareness, situational control (emotional intelligence), data collection and analysis, and knowledge sharing. Compassion includes caring for self but especially focuses on taking care of others (social intelligence).

Reinforce Cultural Norms. The research on teams in our new book Leading Teams (coming soon) has revealed a solid model for stable cultures, based in part on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Taking a more modernized and leaner approach, that model has three levels in its hierarchy. At its base: Safety—leaders must make people feel both psychologically and physically secure, or they will seek that safety somewhere else. If people are too scared to speak up, even in less difficult, pre-COVID-19 situations, they will not bring best solutions forward. Connection—at the next level, leaders must make people feel connected to a larger tribe. Belonging is a critical human need. Purpose—leaders need to make people feel a sense of purpose—that what they do matters to them, the company, and even the world.

Adapt Strategy. When a tsunami hits, a new strategy is required. However, if you have a solid mission and values that everyone knows and believes in, life gets a little easier. We begin to focus on the new normal—the new Why, What and How.  We need to ask: Why do we exist (our mission) and how do we impact the world around us? Then, our what—what do we need to do in a priority order of absolute importance? Finally, we ask ourselves how we will execute toward that plan.

What follows is a description of The Leadership Cycle—a way of demonstrating how leaders should respond in each of three distinct phases of a crisis: Reaction to it, recovery from it, and a reimagined future going forward. The three primary actions (establish trust, reinforce cultural norms, adapt strategy) continue to play out in this leadership cycle.

Leadership Cycle: Reaction to the Crisis

By now, we are all waist deep in reacting to COVID, literally overnight. Disruption is at a tectonic scale. Offices, streets, businesses deserted in weeks. Social distancing, isolation in homes, shutting down stadiums, kids out of school while parents work from home—the whole culture came to a screeching halt. Leaders have been thrust into the eye of the crisis with no real preparation, certainly not at this global level and scale.

Establish Trust: Harvard business school professor Nancy Koehn has researched and written extensively on leading in crisis. In an outstanding webinar on crisis leadership, she tells leaders that crisis is the crucible for greatness and disaster. Lincoln, Truman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy all rose to the occasion at critical times in history. They established trust in the middle of the storm by communicating regularly, telling the hard truth, framing the complex crisis in plain-spoken words, engaging in rapid-fire learning as the situation unfolded, addressing people’s fears with empathy, and being unafraid to lean on other experts for help. Today, Governor Cuomo is a classic example of the effective leader in crisis—telling the truth as he knows it, offering the sometimes brutal facts, using a rational approach, and calming the fears of the state as New Yorkers navigate the worst disaster in their history, including 9/11.

Reinforce Cultural Norms: What authentic leaders don’t do is claim that only they can save the day (the Superman Syndrome), that only they know how tough things are and without them, all is lost. Authentic leaders calm the base fears of the unknown and establish the power of the tribe—we are all in this together and we’ll get through it together. Also, they focus on resolve, values and purpose going forward.

Adapt Strategy: Professor Koehn shows us how to communicate humanely as we ground people and point then strategically toward the next phase of the crisis—the recovery. When you communicate, she instructs, frame the stakes of the crisis based on facts and challenges. Then list both the assets and liabilities of the situation as accurately as possible. Assets are the resources we bring to these liabilities (challenges). People want the facts, and they want solutions. Address people’s fears but don’t overwhelm and paralyze them. Rather, do so in a way that conveys real empathy without giving way to your own fears or that you alone are the solution. It’s more about WE than me. Convey that we’re all scared, but we’ve faced challenges in the past, like 9/11, the Depression, war, and much more. She warns leaders to imagine worst case scenarios but to adapt their strategy toward the more likely ones as a way of calibrating expectations and fears. In a crisis, it’s not strategic planning as usual, but planning on the run. Cuomo does this frequently in his news briefings—being cautiously optimistic, while at the same time being painfully blunt about the cruel facts of the virus’s impact, and then what he plans to do next.

Leadership Cycle: Recovery from the Crisis

After the white heat of any crisis comes the recovery period as things get back to normal—a new normal—one tempered by grave circumstances. Traces of the primary leadership actions are still operating in the background—leaders need to continue to focus on trust, culture and strategy. And we need to learn as much as possible from others and pool resources to become resilient in a time of uncertainty and fear. Accordingly, Deloitte and Gartner, two powerhouse consultancies, have developed guidance to help leaders progress to the next stage of the crisis.

First, Deloitte polled leaders from around the globe to answer the question: How do we recover and bounce back? They have since published what will, I believe, become a classic crisis response report The Heart of the Resilient Leader.

  • Design from the heart … and the head. In crisis, the hardest things can be the softest things. Resilient leaders are authentic and sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems. Yet, resilient leaders must simultaneously take a hard, rational line to protect financial performance.
  • Put the mission first. Resilient leaders are skilled at triage and priorities, able to stabilize their organizations to meet the crisis at hand while finding opportunities amid difficult constraints.
  • Aim for speed over elegance. Resilient leaders take decisive action—with courage— based on imperfect information, knowing that expediency is essential.
  • Own the narrative. Resilient leaders seize the narrative at the outset, being transparent about current realities—including what they don’t know—while also painting a compelling picture of the future that inspires others to persevere.
  • Embrace the long view. Resilient leaders stay focused on the horizon, anticipating the new business models that are likely to.”

Gartner, the tech consulting giant, has the pulse of CIOs and senior executives across its global practice and offers advice through its special section on leading in COVID.

In separate webinar interviews, Chris Howard, chief of research, and Mary Mesaglio, distinguished analyst, discussed the COVID response and recovery. They echo much of what we have discussed about building trust, bolstering culture and revising strategy.

  • During the initial stages of the crisis, leaders had to first get workers safe—working remotely amid uneven bandwidth, while balancing work with caring for parents and kids all under the same roof, all day and night. Leaders, they advise in their webinars, must come to realize that people working from home under crisis conditions can’t work the same as they did at work. Next comes the need for leaders to address how to aggressively contain costs and preserve cash flow, all of which if done well and in a timely way builds trust. But going forward after the initial crisis as we round the bend to the new normal, Howard rightly claims that this crisis has brought the future forward as new strategies emerge: Leaders need to use evolving data to make decisions, become ruthlessly transparent—talking about what you know and don’t—and tell workers what they can expect.
  • Mesaglio instructs leaders amid a crisis to set hyper clear priorities, centrally mandated, and hierarchical. Use non-binary problem solving—not either/or but both/and thinking. In transition toward a new strategy, she recommends using communication that is clear, empathetic and honest—call it a communication plan, or maybe an understanding plan. Repeat the message over and over. Mesaglio also strongly recommends building a culture by keeping track of stories that emerge during transition—people going above and beyond for the good of the company, customer and community. These stories—in rich detail—create social cohesion and bolster the culture, now and in the future. Stories will morph as crisis fatigue sets in and people move from the acute to chronic stage (emergencies vs. day-in-day-out slog). Acknowledge the chronic too—not as exciting, but important. And, again, capture the details of the story, which give it authenticity. When it comes to new strategy, leadership teams will be throwing away traditional models and will look at hypothesis-driven scenario planning. A crisis is a massive focusing tool—don’t waste the opportunity.

Leadership Cycle: Reimagine the Future After the Crisis

The Chinese symbol for crisis translates into danger and opportunity. According to Harvard professor Koehn, crisis is truly the crucible in which great leaders are forged, and conversely some leaders are exposed as frauds. Again, we have seen the great ones emerge in the past and now we’re seeing leaders in business, government, and non-profits emerge. At the same time, such crises challenge the very foundational assumptions of our society and organizations. Do we need to always work in proximity to get the job done? Do we need to commute for hours every day to be in a central location? Do corporate sales always need to be done in person? These and many other assumptions we hold near and dear will be challenged in the heat of this crisis. Indeed, the old saw seems at play here: Necessity is the mother of invention. And if our leaders are trusted because of their character, competence, and compassion; if our fundamental safe-connected-purposeful cultures are preserved; and if our why-how-what strategies are adapted, we’ll one day arrive at a new normal that may well be much better than the old one. That is the fundamental innovative transition process—accelerated by COVID—that we’re living in. A powerful, reimagining report by the consulting firm McKinsey—Innovating from Necessity: The Business Building Imperative in the Current Crisis—forecasts trends already emerging, specifically six “archetypes” (models) for post-crisis business builders.

  • The remote service provider: Telemedicine is a great example. Watch other professions adopt this model.
  • The collaboration platform: Training and education platforms are the best example, but more to come with lawyers, accountants and engineers.
  • The dynamic talent employer: Recruiters are finding new ways to source key employees fast and creatively. Large Australian grocer Woolworths is working through a new agile system to source thousands of laid-off Qantas Airlines employees to meet its crushing need.
  • The high-touch digital retailer: Notice how even more elderly folks are working digitally to shop online for groceries due to stay-at-home orders from states. Watch as real estate and other sectors move toward this trend.
  • The data visionary: Now, because there are fewer people on site, companies are using previously unused data to monitor machinery.
  • The resilient and flexible but not redundant operator: Because of threat-disrupted supply chains posed in COVID, companies like Blue Yonder monitor vital information from the CDC to enable its companies to adjust to sudden shifts and supply-chain shock.
  • Four Ways to Succeed: As found in McKinsey’s research on innovation, to be successful, leaders will need to:
    • Get support from a top executive as a sponsor for innovation.
    • Tap into the parent company’s strengths to leverage them into the new enterprise.
    • Pressure-test all assumptions to see if they apply in a post-COVID world.
    • Build dedicated teams, focused on new initiatives.


We’ve all got a front seat, at home, to watch great and poor leadership play itself out on live TV. We can literally watch leaders making history during rapid changes. The great ones put people first and the work last—especially during the initial crisis phase. These leaders take actions that establish trust—character, competence and compassion; they pay attention to the culture pyramid—safety, connection, and purpose; and they quickly adapt their strategies—the Why, How and What—which are based on scenarios that present themselves with little warning. They show exceptional skill in navigating all 3 stages of the leadership cycle as they move from reaction to the crisis, to recovery from the crisis, and to the reimagining of the future following the crisis.

Change is often difficult and slow, except when your life and business depend on it.

Steve Gladis is a Senior Scholar at our center and the CEO of Steve Gladis Leadership Partners.