How to Lead Well in Times of Crisis and Uncertainty

July 03, 2020

We are in the midst of change and transition.

It is true of our country. It is true of our world. And it is true of us.

Leading well is easy when times are good. When things are going well and there is plenty of financial buffer and people look up to you, leading can feel easy.

The challenge in leadership comes when everything falls apart and you are standing there wondering what just hit and your people are looking to you -- YOU -- to make decisions, to be creative, to explore new options, and most importantly, to not fall apart in the midst of the crisis.

Here’s the thing: no matter what is happening in the world and how you’re handling it as a leader, we lead people who are constantly changing, growing, and transitioning. If you can lead well in the midst of chaos, you will be able to effectively lead your people through their own transitions, at work, home, and more.

When it comes to leading well, especially in the midst of crisis and uncertainty, there are four key things you can do to level up your leadership, support your team, and grow yourself in the process.


What is your team feeling and experiencing during this time of uncertainty? Each one of us has a different way of coping with crisis and more than anything else, they need to know you are there for them.

When talking about plans and ways forward, use “we” language versus “me” or “them” language. It can be easy to lapse into “the company” is making these decisions or “the boss” says we have to do this or that. Isolating yourself from broader decisions may make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run, you are alienating yourself and your team. Talk about ways “we can get through this” and how “teamwork can create new opportunities.”

In addition to fostering an engaged team through inclusive language, you will also empower your team with the power of positive emotions and positive thought. Positivity has been shown to broaden people’s perspectives, create new opportunities, and allow them to respond more resiliently to crisis.

Active Listening

When it comes to leading during a crisis, it’s easy for your brain to allow your own thoughts to dominate. After all, you have to make the difficult decisions to lead, right?

Yet your team needs to know that you are able and willing to listen to hear them. Listening to understand your team, rather than listening to get the information you need to move ahead, will change the way your team works.

Can you turn off the chatter in your brain and all the things you know you need to do in order to really hear what the other person is saying?

There are Four Levels of Listening:

Level 0 is when you’re just tuned out; you’re not listening at all Level 1 is listening to respond; you need information and you’re waiting to get it Level 2 listening is where things start to shift as you listen to hear and understand the other person. Level 3 is where we are listening holistically and globally, fully focused on the other person, yet also seeing how it fits into the big picture.

When you notice yourself in Level 0 or 1, practice turning off the chatter in your brain and tuning into the other person, just for the sake of understanding where they are. You may notice a profound difference in their willingness to engage fully in their work and hear you in return.

Critical Thought

One of the challenges of crisis is that it puts us in “fight or flight” response, which inherently narrows our field of view and limits our options. One of the most powerful things you can do as a leader in crisis is to hear things that may be at odds with your frame of reference.

It’s easy to surround ourselves with validating opinions as we seek to feel better in the midst of uncertainty. If you can be willing to expand your frame of reference, listen to people and opinions you disagree with, and encourage ideas you may not have considered before, your ability to lead more effectively will increase exponentially.

Ultimately, expanding your critical thought helps you cut through the noise to the heart of the situation. Are your team members nitpicking more than usual? Are people struggling to meet deadlines while working from home? Ask yourself what’s really at play and work to see things from another perspective. If you can tap into empathy and active listening to hear ideas you may not have considered before, your team will come out stronger and more effective as a result.

Ask Powerful Questions

As you grow yourself to empathize, listen actively, and critically evaluate your way of thinking, one simple tool that will help you is asking powerful questions.

Powerful questions are questions that open up the conversation, not shut it down.

Powerful questions are focused on the person, not the situation.

Powerful questions are asked one at a time, not thrown like darts one after another.

Powerful questions during a crisis could include:

How is this situation affecting you? What do you need to feel supported during this time? If nothing were off-limits, what new opportunities or ideas could we create together?

As you lead through COVID-19, riots, discussions around race, and more, take time to develop yourself as a leader. By growing your empathy, your ability to listen and think critically, and learning to ask powerful questions, you will be able to lead effectively and build a team that feels supported, engaged, and ready to tackle the challenges with you.

Ready to take your leadership to the next level? AGL: Coaching for Good is here to help! Schedule a call here!