Contributed by Winnie Hart, an EO Houston member who serves on EO’s Board of Directors. Hart is an author, brand strategist and the CEO of TwinEngine and Brand in the Box. In March 2020 as the global pandemic began—long before work-from-home and Zoom fatigue were issues—we asked Hart about her experience leading her business through crisis. The article, which originally appeared on EO’s Inc.com channel in March 2020, has garnered nearly 38,000 page views and is posted here in its entirety:
We are experiencing a global crisis that needs leaders like you to lead. A crisis is defined as a time when difficult or important decisions must be made. We often don’t see a crisis coming and aren’t prepared. The coronavirus crisis is happening now, but it will certainly not be the last challenge we face. We must be ready. We must be prepared. We must lead.
When faced with a crisis, will you rise to the challenge, or will you fall?
At 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. The levees broke, flooding more than 80 percent of the city with 224 billion gallons of water. In a weekend, I lost 75 percent of my business. Before that day, I thought failure was the worst possible outcome.
Though it sounds cliché, I learned what would become my mantra: From crisis comes opportunity. Through failure, I gained resilience and learned that a strong vision sees no barriers.
When my business collapsed, it forced me to align my ambitions with my purpose. By aligning your purpose with what you stand for, you connect to who you’re meant to be. It shapes your impact on the world and empowers you to build a company that is extraordinary rather than ordinary. Should disaster strike again, I know that I have the power to evolve into a stronger, transformational leader.
During a crisis, leaders lead. In every crisis, there is opportunity for leaders to make something good when it seems impossible. Like firefighters rushing into a burning building, we have to make quick decisions because lives—and businesses—depend on it.
10 ways leaders can rise to the challenge:
1. Align expectations
In a crisis, you will not have all the answers but will need to address the unknown and speak confidently. People will expect actions from you. Aligning expectations and realities takes skill, insight and patience, as well as the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers. Leaders conquer communications barriers and communicate early and often.
2. All eyes are on you
Leaders often forget that all eyes are on them. This is especially true as the intensity of a situation grows. In such moments, people look to leaders, searching their words, actions and body language for guidance. It’s like when you experience turbulence on a flight—you look to the flight crew and their non-verbal cues.
Leaders know themselves. You need to be more of what makes you who you are: Those values, qualities, talents and experiences that people already appreciate about you. Your challenge is to see yourself outside of yourself to gain an understanding of how others see and perceive you as a leader. Self-awareness is a critical capability that leaders must develop.
3. Stay positive
“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” — John Maxwell
Remain as optimistic as possible. How you show up in a crisis has a significant impact. Positive thoughts and actions focus on strengths, successes, opportunities and collaboration. Leaders radiate trust, hope and optimism that leads to positive energy, confidence and purpose.
4. Tell the truth
Communication is your kryptonite. Crisis often includes misinformation that leads to confusion. Explain the problem honestly in a straightforward way, focusing on positive steps to overcome it. Choose words wisely, be consistent and clear. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. If you are confusing, you are losing.
5. Know what you stand for
When someone asks what you as a leader stand for—what do you say? What is your purpose, mission and values? Every action should reflect this. It’s not just about standing for something; it’s about the difference you make in the world and stepping up to share what you stand for to encourage others to do the same. Leaders work from a place of purpose. A higher mission that motivates and inspires teams for action. You, as a leader, are a brand. Don’t miss an opportunity to lead and build your brand equity in a crisis.
6. Demonstrate empathy
Listen to understand. Show people that you genuinely care by relating to their perspective. Recognize behaviors and respond to emotions. Remember: Empathy isn’t about what you want—it’s about what the other person needs. Your actions should benefit them.
7. See the big picture
Leaders can see the big picture and visualize the potential impact long before others do. It’s crucial to step back, observe and make sense of the situation. My dad always said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Leaders must be comfortable with what they can’t see. One of the hardest things to do in a crisis is to step back from managing the urgent problems while maintaining focus on the bigger picture.
8. Slow down and stay calm
Keep calm and carry on! People need to feel safe and secure. The composure of leaders must embody agility and patience to minimize the impact of uncertainty. Take care of yourself, mentally and physically, so that you can be fully present. People feed off of emotions and erratic behaviors. Crisis is fueled when composure is missing.
9. Have a plan
“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” — Theodore M. Hesburgh
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Focus and discipline are essential. Envision success and build a plan that is easy to understand and flexible in responding to the unknown.
10. Simply lead
Leaders simply lead. They work from within themselves, with the courage, emotional intelligence and integrity to navigate the crisis around them. They are prepared; they don’t panic. They care and communicate in service of others. Leaders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They see the opportunity in a crisis to transform themselves and the world around them.
Don’t miss an opportunity to lead–to rise above the chaos and crisis when everything seems impossible. The world needs you.