How to step up your leadership during a crisis

16 Apr 2020

How to step up your leadership during a crisis

We recently hosted a webinar with Potential Project, a global firm that enhances performance, innovation and resilience through mindfulness. The presentation provided three tips to help leaders adopt an agile mindset and build resilience during this crisis.

The world has changed seemingly overnight. COVID-19 has impacted most countries in the world and organizations and leaders are scrambling to innovate and pivot to keep up. But as organizations change in response to external pressures, so too must our leadership styles.

According to Eric Beaudan, Partner and Global Head of the Leadership Practice at Odgers Berndtson, there are different leadership skills required during a crisis than during normal times. For example, when the economy is healthy and strong, many leaders are focused on driving strategy, aligning culture and business processes, and developing high potential talent within the organization. In times of crisis, however, effective leaders need to pivot along with their organizations and must concentrate on maintaining a cohesive team and a collective spirit, and prioritize keeping people energized and motivated – regardless of how close or far away they might be right now.

In our most recent webinar, our guest speaker Rasmus Hougaard, Founder and Managing Director of Potential Project and co-author of Mind of the Leader (HBR Press 2018), shared three best practices for developing an agile mindset and building resilience during these difficult times. As leaders work to revise their strategies and rewrite their playbooks to adapt, they must work quickly and skillfully and have the mental agility to continue moving forward with confidence. Here are some key takeaways from the event:

Pause and Focus

Over the past month, we have all been inundated with an influx of emails, meetings and news. Information overload can cause distraction and cause us to lose focus and awareness. When our mind is distracted and jumps from one thing to the next, it becomes more difficult to make good decisions and to prioritize.

Good leadership requires the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture, while also zooming in to understand and concentrate on the details. Leaders must have the mental agility to shift back and forth, without getting off track.

In order to do this, leaders must work on strengthening their mental agility to cut through the noise, trying to think of work in terms of small sprints, rather than a marathon. Focus on working on specific tasks, Rasmus says, and try to take pauses in between them throughout the day. Letting your mind settle for even a few minutes can help deepen both your focus and awareness and can help you figure out if you’re prioritizing the right things. Rasmus also suggests adopting a daily mindfulness practice to support your leadership focus and awareness.

Seek Compassion over Empathy

Empathy is the human ability to identify and relate to the emotions of other people. It is an important human quality, but it can be barrier to agility and good leadership in a time of crisis, says Rasmus.

Today’s leaders must make some very difficult decisions about layoffs, salary reductions and closures during this crisis, and these decisions inevitably have a negative impact on many people. The weight of empathy can cause distress and paralysis, and hinder leaders from making the right decision.

Instead, it’s important to prioritize compassion, which is constructive action with an intent to help. Harnessing the power of wise compassion means checking in with your intentions, acting with kindness, putting yourself in others’ shoes, and being as candid and transparent as possible. It’s about asking yourself the question, “how can I be of benefit to others right now?” and then following through.

See the Possibilities and Opportunities

Egos can get in the way of our ability to pivot quickly and effectively. As humans, we tend to be attached to past successes and accomplishments, even if they are no longer relevant. But today’s most successful leaders are the ones that can see different possibilities, challenge assumptions and innovate. To do this effectively, leaders must try to adopt a ‘beginners’ mind’ to see the future more clearly. They must recognize that they don’t have all the answers and seek advice and perspective from others – especially younger people and those with diverse backgrounds. Listen carefully, ask more questions and challenge the assumptions about how you run your organization.

Ultimately, crises are the moments that will bring out our strengths and weaknesses. The people that can focus, have discipline and maintain awareness right now will offer the most effective leadership to their people, their customers and their communities.

If you’re looking for more ways to improve your leadership effectiveness now, here are some additional resources:

For more information on Potential Project’s mind training programs, contact Vince Brewerton 

Read Eric Beaudan’s Forbes article on Four Strategies for Leading Through Disruption

Read Rasmus Hougaard's Harvard Business Review article on Build Your Resilience in the Face of a Crisis

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