5 Skills for leading through a global crisis

Monika Barton
Mar 16, 2020

While governments and health bodies rally to contain COVID-19 and limit the impact of the pandemic, businesses are finding themselves navigating through new and unprecedented terrain.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, organisations look to their leaders even more than usual to provide solidity, confidence and clarity.

Leaders, of course, are themselves under immense pressure as markets follow waves of upheaval. They, too, are human and subject to a full spectrum of emotion that includes fear and anxiety.

Yet, they need to continue making good decisions that instil trust. Not easy, but the abilities required to operate this way are within reach.

The challenge

“COVID-19 looks set to test the remote capabilities of all organisations worldwide, as more employees will likely be working from home due to government instruction, self-isolation or otherwise. This will impact almost all business functions” warns Alan Hiddleston, Director of Corporate Learning EMEA at D2L.

But it’s not solely about maintaining operational outcomes; business leaders also have a responsibility to their employees.

Jog Hundle, Partner at Mills & Reeve, advises that both HR and business leads “need to be particularly aware of the need to balance their obligations to protect the health and safety of their staff with the operational requirements of the organisation to which they are accountable.”

Effective leadership through crises like the coronavirus outbreak requires strong managerial capability, but it also requires softer skills that underlie sustained performance and a problem-solving mindset.

Two-way feedback, motivation and communication

In a time of flux employees more than ever, need their leaders to stay calm and engage with their fears and worries.

Leadership feedback, motivation and communication

Geoff Watts, Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach and expert on Agile Leadership, points out “leaders must create ‘psychological safety’ because when people are frightened, they are unable to think creatively about solving problems. Instead, they can only think about self-preservation”.

More so, with such an abundance of information available in the public sphere, there’s a higher risk of incorrect facts causing fear and panic. By stepping up communication updates, organisations can alleviate these anxieties quickly. However, this should not be a one-way channel but rather a dialogue.

Employees need to feel safe to express their concerns and feel heard. Geoff goes on to argue “good leaders will need to consider their language and positioning about the outbreak. They will need to give their employees the permission to openly discuss their concerns and feel safe to fail, and safe in the knowledge that the business as a whole has the confidence in their abilities to weather this storm.”

Thrive in ambiguity

“It’s astounding that even the biggest Silicon Valley tech companies are in meltdown at the prospect of teams now having to work from home. Why?”

One of the most immediate and widespread responses to the COVID-19 outbreak has been the dissolution of conventional work arrangements in favour of staff working from home.

Remote working is hardly a new concept. However, many businesses interpret presenteeism as an indication of productivity and motivation. Hence shying away from instilling virtual working models into their companies.

Jessica Nordlander, Chief Operating Officer at Thoughtexchange, says “it’s astounding that even the biggest Silicon Valley tech companies are in meltdown at the prospect of teams now having to work from home. But why? The technology to enable ultra-productive and scalable remote working has existed for years”.

“Senior leadership need to develop their trust levels with their employees”

In reality, the change to home-working is more likely to involve a shift in perspective rather than working practice itself.

“Senior leadership need to develop their trust levels with their employees, believing that they do not need to physically see them and check in with them on their progress as frequently as previously possible,” advises Geoff Watts.

Willingness to work with and through others

Regardless of their own internal experience, leaders need to be able to embody the confidence that permits those around them to feel calm and present. This confidence often needs to originate somewhere deeper than self-esteem.

Working with and through others is a key leadership quality

A leader who identifies as being part of something bigger than themselves feel less personally threatened by crises. It is then that leaders are able to tap into the parts of themselves that inspire others.

Chris Shambrook identifies control, confidence and connections as the 3C’s that underpin motivation. He believes business leaders can maintain focus by “taking control of attitude, self-care, preparation and ensuring they’ve got lots of mini successes to focus on delivering, one day at a time.”

To boost confidence, Chris suggests introducing regular “conversations designed to reinforce all of the core strengths that everyone possesses that will be highly valuable in delivering success each day.”

Lastly, to foster a sense of togetherness, something that’s easily lost when working remotely, he advises managers should “set up catch-up calls, and use virtual technology to stay updated. If you’re doing one and two in virtual groups, then this will help enormously with the sense of connectedness and bringing everyone together as a united team”.

Imparting a clear vision of change

It’s human nature to feel fear in times of uncertainty. It’s our brain’s default programme to keep us safe.  However, anxiety and negativity can quickly spiral, particularly when emotions are high, having a detrimental effect on decision-making, morale and wellbeing in the workplace.

Employees look to business leaders to create a message of positivity.

To deliver this, Alister Gray, Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant and founder of Mindful Talent, maintains businesses need “a clear plan of action and strategy, with a supportive, positive narrative and message.

He says to “identify champions and influential people within the company who can help spread the critical messages with passion and vigour. Those people in the organisation who are respected and appreciated by their peers and use them to help ‘infect’ the organisation with a positive, mental attitude.”

Tenacity to excel and challenge orthodoxies

Whatever shape the new working paradigm takes, skills—both hard and soft—will become even more critical. However, many business functions, including learning and development, rely heavily on face-to-face interactions.

However, this shouldn’t act as a barrier to professional development. Instead, ongoing advancements in learning technology and changing learning models mean there are more opportunities to deliver virtual and remote learning models.

“These days, staff should have access to a modern learning platform that can be accessed anywhere—one that allows instructional videos, assignments and feedback to be shared remotely so that learning journeys can be continued at home or wherever required. The use of digital applications is already enabling agile and remote learning as the workforce moves away from the office environment to adapt to specific needs,” says Alan Hiddleston, Director of Corporate Learning EMEA at D2L.

Consequently, Geoff Watts observes, “by embracing an agile approach, businesses can continue to help their employees build on their leadership development by encouraging them to take up online modular courses. These provide quick iterative feedback – a core tenant of agile – and encourage employees to take control of their own career development, focusing on developing aspects of their career which are important to them”.


Covid-19 has presented organisations with a range of unique challenges. Understandably the prospect of dealing with so many unknown factors is unsettling and concerning. However, in times of adversity, there is also the opportunity to learn.

It may not feel this way, though.

As Dessalen Wood, Chief People Officer at Thoughtexchange, points out, “Learning and Development leaders are likely facing two major challenges: Their live events being cancelled, and a general sense that ‘this is not the time for professional development’, because the focus is on other factors in the business being impacted by COVID-19.”

“During a crisis may be the most vital time to commit to developing leaders, not the least.”

Businesses who take the view that there are more important things to worry about than learning and development may be sabotaging their ability to respond optimally to a major event like the coronavirus outbreak.

“I heard a quote years ago I love, says Wood, ‘Cancelling training is like cancelling morale.’ Employees view the availability of professional development as a sign of a healthy organisation.” And employees who believe that their organisation is strong and healthy are more able to deliver their best.

This is never truer than at a leadership level, where the halo of individual influence is greater than in other pockets of the business. During a crisis may be the most vital time to commit to developing leaders, not the least.

By remaining agile and responsive to changing conditions, organisations can convert impactful leadership development into an asset that helps transform uncertainty into opportunity.

Monika Barton

Monika Barton

Monika Barton is a content writer and researcher with over 15 years of management and communications experience in the public and private sector in the U.K. She specialises in writing about H.R., the employee experience, and disruptive technologies and their impact on the world.