Crisis leadership: 6 things leaders can do to guide their people through a crisis

Danger zone

Coronavirus is causing unprecedented social and economic disruption around the world in what can only be described as a crisis for individuals, businesses and even nations.

Business leaders cannot solve this crisis, but this does not mean that they can abdicate responsibility for their people and their organisations. So, what does it take to lead through a crisis? We asked Adrian Moorhouse, Lane4’s Managing Director, and Tom Smith, Consultant Director, for their advice around crisis leadership in this extraordinarily challenging time.

Adrian Moorhouse and Tom Smith

Adrian Moorhouse and Tom Smith

They had six crisis leadership tips, that you can read about in more detail below:

  • Manage your state
  • Be clear on what success looks like
  • Build support networks
  • Be clear on roles and responsibility
  • Collaborate effectively
  • Don’t wait: make quick decisions

The context

Adrian Moorhouse

The first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic were unlike any I’ve ever known. The situation with lockdowns led to changes, for businesses and individuals, that would normally take weeks and months to happen, not days and hours. As you may know, I was an Olympic swimmer before my career in business, and the pressure of the Olympics is nothing compared to this crisis. The closest parallel for me is my experience leading Lane4 through the 2008/9 recession, but even that had more certainty in my opinion.

Tom Smith

I started my career as a prison psychologist, and in a role like that every day is a crisis, so I am definitely thinking about that experience more today than I normally do in my work at Lane4! What stands out to me right now is this: we are in a constantly shifting scenario but some of the changes will stay with us for a long time.

Adrian Moorhouse

Controlling the controllables has always been good advice for dealing with pressure, but it’s hard when there’s so much turbulence and what might be controllable is shifting.

When we talk about leadership transitions, we often use the metaphor of a trapeze artist where you must let go in order to perform. But I think coronavirus has changed that metaphor slightly, because in a way we’ve all been forced, very rapidly, to let go of the business world as we knew it before. And right now, most of us are wondering, “where’s the safety net? Is there a safety net?” But if we stay calm, if we review the information available to us, we’ll catch that next trapeze.

Tom Smith

There are six aspects to crisis leadership that Adrian and I feel are particularly important right now. These six tips are in many ways common sense, but under pressure they aren’t always common practice.

1. Manage your state

Tom Smith

Managing your state is a crucial part of managing a crisis. By staying calm, not only are you emitting the right signals to your people, but you also make better quality decisions.

Adrian Moorhouse

Of course, staying calm in a crisis is easier said than done. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and start catastrophising, so the key is self-awareness. The more aware you are of your state – how you feel – when you are under pressure, the more you can do about it. You need to understand how your body responds under pressure; what physical signs are there that it’s getting too much and your decision-making might be compromised? If you think you’re reaching this point, try breathing exercises to lower your heart rate (or any other exercises that you know help you calm down).

Tom Smith

Another part of crisis management leadership is recognising how your skills might be of different value in the context of the crisis. Check your strengths and see if these are now unhealthy biases, because things in the past that have previously worked for you might not now. Perhaps you normally pride yourself on your attention to detail, on never letting a cell be out of place in a spreadsheet: is that behaviour going to help or hinder you when you have to respond rapidly and decisively?

2. Be clear on what success looks like

Adrian Moorhouse

One of the hardest things about leading through a crisis is readjusting your perspective from where it was before everything started going downhill. You need to retain your long-term business goals but right now they aren’t important, not least because, psychologically, when people are feeling under threat they find long-term ambitions less compelling. What people want to know is “what are we doing now to overcome our current threat?”

Tom Smith

Success in the short term is defined by short, simple goals. Look at the context in which you’re operating and set some realistic, focused aims for your team. Achieving these makes people feel good and helps them to gain a sense of control over a small piece of an otherwise chaotic world.

It’s also an opportunity to thank people so celebrate these wins! Your people are going to be facing new challenges in a new context, so gratitude and recognition can go a long way towards keeping up morale.

Adrian Moorhouse

Another part of keeping your people engaged and motivated during a crisis is keeping them in the know. Update regularly with facts and give people clear direction on what is required from them. Try to develop a drumbeat so that people know when they should expect information. At Lane4, for example, we send around an update shortly after the government’s press conference each day.

3. Build support networks

Tom Smith

In a crisis, trust is more important than ever. You need to reassure people that you have their interests at heart. This includes your customers as well, not just your employees

It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes over the coming weeks (perhaps you’ve already made some) because you are trying to make decisions based on rapidly changing information. Building trust is vital; people will get upset and you may be the focus of that upset, but if people trust your intent, they will be forgiving of you as a leader. They know that it’s never going to be a smooth curve, so all you can do is update plans based on information as it becomes available.

Adrian Moorhouse

Support networks are also relevant for managing stress – what support do you have in place for yourself as well as for others?

I remember when I first started out, I didn’t really understand the benefits of teams and support networks because I had always had to rely on my own performance as a swimmer. But once you’re in business you quickly realise that it has to be collegiate, that there has to be some give and take.

Tom Smith

It is hard to build support networks in virtual teams, but it’s worth that effort. You might need to be more explicit in making time for people to talk about how they’re feeling or what’s going on in their personal lives. This might seem unimportant in a crisis, but when the pressure on people is high what mitigates the impact is the degree of support people receive. Having the right support network will help them manage the demands upon them better, maintain their performance and help them psychologically recover sooner.

4. Be clear on roles and responsibilities.

Tom Smith

A lot has been written on this subject so I won’t go over familiar ground, but remember that in a crisis everyone wants to help and get involved – you’re probably seeing it in your organisation now – and managing that is important. Suddenly, everyone is cc’d and everyone is responding to everything. It creates more work and bogs down decision making.

In the prison I worked in, we had a crisis team that was separate to the overall running of the prison. We did need to be in regular communication with the wider organisation, but the key was that it was our job to resolve the crisis, not theirs.

Adrian Moorhouse

In my opinion, Tom’s example is directly relevant to crisis leadership in a business environment. Set up a team to deal with the crisis that is independent of the running of the business and keep the two apart (even if you have some of the same people on both).

When it comes to people wanting to get involved, make people choose what they are going to help with: no one can do everything so take their passion and use it effectively.

5. Collaborate effectively

Tom Smith

A big obstacle to successful crisis management leadership can be our egos. Right now, you’ll be collaborating with lots of people who you don’t normally work with. You may even be being told – told – what to do by someone less senior than you, because they are in the crisis team. It’s really important that you don’t let your ego cloud your judgement.

That leads onto the next point: be open minded with how you use people. In business-as-usual people naturally tend to get pigeonholed based on their roles, but in a crisis you’ll often be surprised by the skills and experience people have. Don’t waste that just because it’s out of their standard remit.

Adrian Moorhouse

It might seem counterintuitive, but a crisis is no time for heroes. As a leader it’s crucial that you don’t become the bottleneck in the decision making because you’re determined to cover everything.

A leader must make sure that she or he has the right people around them in order to share the responsibility of leadership. Don’t pull up the drawbridge and hoard responsibility, because if you burn out then the crisis will get a lot more unmanageable.

6. Don’t wait: make quick decisions

Tom Smith

As a hostage negotiator, I learnt pretty quickly that there are no right decisions in a crisis. It’s human nature to want to gather enough information to feel 100% confident in a choice, but as a leader you just can’t wait for that psychological safety. You must act based on the data you have.

The flipside of that is that your decisions in a crisis should never be final. Don’t stick to plans if the latest data makes them obsolete; act based on the information you have and make constant, minor adjustments to plans.

Adrian Moorhouse

A part of quick decision making is effective delegation. Let your people make choices that are in their remit – check in, but don’t micromanage or you’ll act as a blockage.

Ultimately though, this crisis, and any future crises that you face as a leader, are going to require you to improve your adaptability skills. You’ll need new skills and the ability to process novel situations with constantly changing data.

There are models that can give us some insight – such as how businesses cope with recessions – but these cannot be taken as gospel. As long as you are open to new information and new ways of working, as long as you are comfortable with ambiguity, you’ll be in the best place to lead through a crisis.

Reach out to us

Adrian Moorhouse

There’s a real sense of community and connection at the moment, and if you want to reach out to Lane4 or me and Tom directly, please do so. We’re all working through this together, and Lane4 will continue to put out tips and advice for leaders over the coming weeks. You can keep up to date with our thinking on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.


Manage your state

Stay calm

Understand how your body responds to pressure

Be aware of potential biases


Be clear on what success looks like

Focus on the short term with quick, achievable goals

Celebrate these goals being completed

Provide information in a regular drumbeat


Build support networks

Reassure people you have their best interests at heart so that they will forgive mistakes

Build your own support networks and facilitate them for your people


Be clear on roles and responsibility

Set up a crisis team separate from the day-to-day business running

Make your people choose what they are going to help with


Collaborate effectively

Don’t let your ego become an obstacle

Be openminded about how your people support the crisis efforts

Don’t micromanage and become a bottleneck


Don’t wait: make quick decisions

Act based on the data you have

Adapt plans if new data renders them obsolete

Delegate what decision making you can

Try to be comfortable operating in ambiguity