How to lead during a crisis

March 15, 2022

How do you lead during a crisis when it’s causing you considerable stress?

by Dr Jana Matthews | 3 minute read | How to lead during a crisis

While we can’t control the events around us, we can control our response to those events. You need to focus on “Managing Yourself” as a leader during a crisis.

The reptilian brain is the oldest part of your brain. It controls your internal, automatic behaviour including your “fight or flight” response to danger. At any moment 100% of the CEOs I know are sensing danger – even the 30% who are doing OK and happen to be in the right place at the right time with products people want to buy.

Let me repeat. While we can’t control the events around us, we can control our response to those events. And as Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the Great Depression, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. When you are fearful, your heart speeds up in preparation for either “fight or flight”. But if your heart is racing over an extended period of time, that’s not normal, so go see your doctor.

The ‘Spiral of Destitution’

The stress you feel during a crisis can be related to a deeper fear being exacerbated by the current events. In our Growth Modules program, we talk about “Managing Me’ and introduce the concept of the ‘Spiral of Destitution’. It usually begins when customers stop buying your products and… (pay attention to how the story unfolds)… you run out of cash and… have to close the company, and then… you lose the house… and your spouse and children leave you… and you are forced out on the street… destitute… and then you die.

WOW – in 7 or 8 turns of the spiral, you go from not being able to sell a product – to death! Some people spiral down faster than 7 turns.  One CEO I knew had the “I’m going to die” response when anything went wrong! He began to realise that he was actually expecting things to go wrong. And his stress levels were off the chart!

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Become self aware to lead during a crisis

It’s really important to become self-aware and recognise when you are beginning to spiral down, lose confidence, or feel anxious and fearful. You need to “manage yourself” to lead during a crisis.

I have two things I say to myself when I have received bad news or feel myself entering the spiral: “My mother said there’d be days like this.” and “Nothing is ever as GOOD or as BAD as you think it is this moment.”  Self-management, balance and resilience are essential in a leader. You need to learn to manage yourself because you, as the leader, are one of your company’s major assets, even though you don’t appear on the balance sheet.

For example, if you are in the process of letting people go, it can be very stressful; it is a process that never becomes easy!  But the pain your feel will reinforce the need to be careful about who you hire in the future, about providing regular feedback to them on their performance, as well as learning and development opportunities, so they can grow as the company grows.

Lessons from the edge

We all need to be able to walk on the edge – which is why I put a picture of a tightrope walker in our Growth Modules. When we were writing the book, Lessons from the Edge, a lot of companies were experiencing the dot.com bust.  I’ll never forget what one of the CEOs said:

“The edge is a very tricky place to be. You are depressed that after all your hard work you are on the edge; you’re frightened and trying hard not to fall over. But all it takes is one phone call, one order, one introduction – and you’re back on solid ground and off and running again, with lots of opportunities to succeed. When you’re on the edge, you need to keep believing that you can make it, because as Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’ll be right.’”

If stress makes your heart race, get it checked out by your doctor. Then learn to manage your stress. Catch yourself before you begin to slide down that rabbit hole and into the spiral of destitution.

Stay positive and keep envisioning your company’s success.  You may not be able to achieve the growth you wanted in the time frames you wanted. But that’s not the end of the world. You’ll be fine – as long as you pay attention to the doctor!

Like this article: try ‘How leaders foster innovation’.

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