Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis

We are living through a global health crisis with no modern-day precedent. What governments, corporations, hospitals, schools, and other organizations need now, more than ever, are what the writer David Foster Wallace called “real leaders” — people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Nancy Koehn of The Harvard Business Review has studied courageous crisis leaders for two decades, and through this work, she states that real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis. Leaders become “real” when they practice a few key behaviors that gird and inspire people through difficult times. As Covid-19 tears its way through country after country, town after town, neighborhood after neighborhood, here’s what we can learn from how some of history’s iconic leaders acted in the face of great uncertainty, real danger, and collective fear.

  • Acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve.
    Your job, as a leader today, is to provide both brutal honesty — a clear accounting of the challenges your locality, company, non-profit, or team faces — and credible hope that collectively you and your people have the resources needed to meet the threats you face each day: determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose, humanity, kindness, and resilience. Recognize that most of your employees are anxious about their health, their finances, and, in many cases, their jobs. Explain that you understand how scary things feel, but that you can work together to weather this storm.

  • Give people a role and purpose.
    Real leaders charge individuals to act in service of the broader community. They give people jobs to do. In the current crisis, leaders must act in a similar fashion — giving their followers direction and reminding them why their work matters. In organizations providing essential services, such as government agencies, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, food and healthcare equipment manufacturing plants, news outlets, scientific labs, non-profits serving the poor and many others — this raison d’ etre will be immediately apparent. But it’s still vitally important to emphasize the key role that each person involved in the operation plays. And, in other businesses, the new mission can be as simple as helping all stakeholders navigate this crisis as effectively as possible.

  • Emphasize experimentation and learning. 
    To successfully navigate crisis, strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognizing that they do not have a crisis playbook. Instead, they commit themselves and their followers to navigating point-to-point through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and re-directing as the situation changes and new information emerges. Courageous leaders also understand they will make mistakes along the way and they will have to pivot quickly as this happens, learning as they go.

  • Tend to energy and emotion  yours and theirs. 
    Crises take a toll on all of us. They are exhausting and can lead to burnout. For many, who lose loved ones, they are devastating. Thus, one critical function of leadership during intense turbulence is to keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s energy and emotions and respond as needed.

We — all of us — will be remembered for how we manage ourselves and others through this crisis. How will you, your team, your organization, our society connect, persevere, and progress? How will we emerge from this experience collectively stronger?

Click here to read the full article by Nancy Koehn for Harvard Business Review.

Image source: HBR Staff/Getty Images

Return to list