Crises Need Leaders, Not Superheroes

By Tom Morrison posted 12-03-2020 10:48


Crises are humbling. They unmask imposters and reveal dormant strengths.

During COVID-19, many leaders navigated unrelenting and unchartered territory from their bedrooms, not their boardrooms. Some found themselves uttering previously unspoken words like “I don’t know,” “unprecedented,” “new normal,” or “pivot.”

I was fortunate to have a front-row seat on leadership behavior during the pandemic while serving on crisis task forces for my clients (C-suite leadership teams at globally recognized brands). Aided by videoconferencing technology, I observed vastly different leadership responses to the pandemic. As I worked with diverse teams, I asked senior leaders to share insights on strategies, successes, mistakes, and lessons learned during the pandemic.

In the months that followed, I spoke with more than 140 remarkable leaders (clients and their colleagues) who navigated chaos, lockdowns, re-openings, and more. These leaders stewarded for-profit, nonprofit, and public safety organizations. They included CEOs and Presidents of companies like Target, Verizon, Kohl’s, Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz, Marriott, Farmers Insurance, Dairy Queen, Zappos, United Way, and the Salvation Army.

Let’s look at a few takeaways to help you steward your family, organizations, and communities through the pandemic and beyond:

Charge your battery

If you were superhuman, you wouldn’t need sleep, exercise, or emotional support. If this crisis had been acute, you could have gotten by with a few 20-hour workdays. Unfortunately, leaders can confuse self-care with selfishness and indirectly send a message to their teams that overwork is the norm. Leaders I spoke with, even one from the movement tracking company Fitbit, had to make a concerted effort to get out of their chairs, take breaks, breathe deeply, and turn off their phones, laptops, and television. Others admitted that they fell into a responsibility-trap, where the problems presented to them, convinced themselves that they needed to sacrifice and deny their limitations or needs.

Open your eyes, ears, and mouth

Whatever plans or roadmaps you had going into 2020 were likely rendered useless by the second quarter of the year. As a hiker, I learned long ago that when the map differs from the terrain, always trust the terrain. Successful crisis leaders know the importance of team member observation and active customer listening (for example, using pulse surveys and consumer trend data). These leaders open their eyes and ears, and also their mouths. In essence, authentic, accurate, and aligned communication helps team members gain their bearings in a tumultuous business environment.

It’s Personal

Fear is personal; technology is not. While technology is an essential tool for tamping down fear and enabling commerce during the pandemic, it isn’t an end unto itself. Where would we have been without Zoom, cashless payment, mobile ordering, or collaboration tools during the pandemic? As transformative as those technologies were, they couldn’t erase social detachment, anxiety, or uncertainty. Given the tumult, angst, and lifestyle disruption that resulted from COVID-19, leaders were called upon to supplement technology with greater empathy and compassion. Leaders sent care packages to their teams, invited team members to virtual happy hours, and asked videoconference participants to share emotionally significant “show and tell” items. They realized that we need to engage all stakeholders in a technology-aided/human-powered way during crises and beyond.

Define and Design for Impact

You will be remembered more for what you do in a crisis than what you do in calm. Effective leaders identify how they want to be remembered once this crisis is over. They take action to increase the likelihood that their desired impact will occur. We will leave a legacy as a leader. The question is whether that legacy will be by design or default.

No one knows when we can claim victory over COVID-19. As far as I am concerned, that day will not come soon enough. I suspect crises will come and go and that leaders who apply the four principles outlined above will endure and help others be Stronger Through Adversity!


Written by:  Joseph Michelli, Speaker, Author, and Organizational Consultant, for