Leadership During a Crisis Playbook

March 26th, 2020
6 Min Read

Years ago, Dave Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airlines, was working in New Jersey overlooking New York City. That morning, he was going to the New York Stock Exchange to take his company public. It was to be one of the greatest days in his company’s history. As he looked across the water toward New York, he could see the buildings that his dear friends worked in. One was Jim Quigley, the CEO of Deloitte, the largest accounting company in the United States. Another was Gary Crittenden, the CFO of American Express, who worked in the building next to Jim Quigley. They were close family friends and attended church together. Dave Neeleman had a clear view of their buildings.

As he looked across the water and saw the New York City skyline, and thought about all the work that it took to get to that point, he saw a plane strike the World Trade Center. His friends worked in the World Trade Center. At first, all that hit him was shock. Were Gary and Jim ok? What was going to happen to their families? Then, shortly afterward, the second plane hit the towers. Immediately, he realized that this was not an accident. His nation, his city, his friends and family, were under attack. He had to make a choice at that point. He could focus on things that he could not control and worry about those families, or he could do something about the planes that his company, Jet Blue Airlines, still had in the air with tens of thousands of passengers on board. 

There is a time to grieve and a time to mourn, but leaders rise in times of despair. He decided that he had to literally turn around, put his back to the things that he couldn’t control and focus on getting those planes on the ground. He put aside any thought of taking his company public. He didn’t focus on the things he couldn’t control but on the things that he could.

Meanwhile, across the river, in the Trade Center, Jim Quigley was in one of the towers that got hit. He was able to make it out. He was on the ground with many of his employees. Suddenly, they started hearing noises behind them. They turned around and realized it was the sound of bodies hitting the ground. People were now jumping to their death. Jim stood on a bench to elevate himself. He faced the falling bodies while he told everyone else to turn around and look at him. He began to talk to the team to give them instruction as well as avoid them from the trauma of seeing people falling to their deaths.

While this was happening, Gary Crittenden of American Express had been working in Tower 5. It had not been hit. He had been evacuated and he was on the ground while the bodies were falling. He realized that he needed the contact information of his employees so that he could make sure they were all OK. That data was on laptops on the 44th floor. He was a marathon runner and knew he could make it up the 44 flights of stairs if he had to but he would have to run into a building that could be a potential target. He ran up anyway with two other volunteers. He was able to make it up there, stack up what they needed, and bring it back down. Then they went to another building and set up a control center to start notifying employees and coordinating efforts. 

After the dust settled, significant losses had been taken but the decisions those individuals made prevented further harm and led to better outcomes than had they otherwise not acted. Their responses defined them as leaders.

What companies and people need in time of crisis are leaders that can help coordinate a plan and execute it to come out of the crisis. They need you.

This is a playbook to help you respond in a time of crisis.

The Playbook

The need for leadership

  • Most people don’t know what to do in a crisis. When a crisis occurs, the uncertainty and fear incapacitates most people. They freeze. They give up. They look for someone who knows what to do. They need a leader that can guide them through the crisis and give them direction.

  • If the crisis has caused loss, people may fixate on the loss. If the crisis can cause future loss, people may fixate on the worst case scenario. If it’s not immediately clear what the consequences of a particular crisis might be, people may fixate on trying to figure out the possible consequences. A leader needs to help people stop focusing on existing loss, future loss, or uncertainty and instead focus on the following:

  • We cannot control the crisis. But we can determine our response to it, and taking action will help us come out of this in a better state than if we didn’t act at all. 

  • The courage and leadership we demonstrate today, the actions we take today, determines what we look like when we come out of it. So we must act. We must respond.

  • We need to identify what is “a better state” and what are the handful of actions or steps we can take to bring us closer to that better state.

How to respond in a crisis

  • Leadership is the ability to influence others towards common goals

  • During a crisis, the leader must be constantly visible to instill confidence that we will figure this out. They cannot hide. They must be seen and frequently communicate with the team.

  • The communications should often focus on “what is the picture of success (what is that better state)” and “what is our strategy to get there (what are the handful of things we need to do to achieve it)”

  • Some crises may cause harm for the duration of the crisis, but may represent an opportunity to capitalize on opportunities once the crisis is over. In these cases, it’s equally important to think about what those opportunities might be when the crisis is over, and what we can do during the crisis to best position ourselves to capitalize on those opportunities when the crisis is over.

  • The leader must be transparent. They must acknowledge problems. And if they don’t know the answer, they should just say so.

  • Some crises are unpredictable, so we may not be prepared for it with an existing plan. Often, we must improvise.

  • Leaders must exercise “deliberate calm,” or the ability to detach from a bad situation and think clearly about how to navigate it.

  • They must also exercise “bounded optimism,” or confidence combined with realism. That doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, or claiming to know exactly how to navigate the crisis. It means recognizing that in crisis, we must often improvise, and we often won’t have all the information we need to make fully informed decisions, but we have confidence that we will figure it out. If leaders display excessive confidence when there are obvious challenges, they will lose credibility.

  • It’s important for leaders to demonstrate empathy and care in times of crisis. Empathy involves acknowledging the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones may experience during a crisis. Care involves demonstrating what you are doing to care for them. People will remember how you treat them during times of crisis.

  • Acknowledge that you may need to make many decisions with imperfect information. If more time will not lead to more information that might lead to a different decision, decide now.

  • Get ahead of what will ultimately need to happen and do it on your timeline, instead of being forced into doing it suddenly and unpreparedly

  • As new information comes in, don’t just overreact to yesterday’s developments. Also look ahead, predict what is to come, and prepare for that. As mentioned previously, one of those things to prepare for is the day we come out of this crisis.

  • Many decisions will be about picking between two bad options and picking which is less worse

  • A time of crisis is naturally stressful. We must exercise deliberate calm and remain stress-free to not impact decision making. We must accept that the situation and responsibility are difficult and ground ourselves in a higher mission, values, or gratitude.

  • Bring perspective: don’t focus on the negative impact you’re experiencing. Try to find gratitude in the good things you do have (health, family, a job, hope for a better future, etc.)

Organizational changes during crisis

  • When responding to a crisis, we must make a lot of decisions. Leadership is not always in the front lines to see the information first-hand, make quick decisions, and implement them. We need a network of teams united under a common goal who are empowered to make and implement their own decisions in real-time, and then communicate the information they’re coming across and the decisions they’re making upwards so that leadership can keep a pulse of what’s going on, coordinate across teams, and correct course if they think different decisions should be made moving forward.

  • This requires promoting psychological safety so people can openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussions. 

Specifically in business

  • It’s important for team members – and especially leadership – to be engaged with customers during a crisis in order to best understand how to serve them (and of course, so that customers know that the leader cares).

  • If you ignore what customers say, it will harm you.

  • If you adapt too slowly to changing conditions, it will harm you.

  • Sales teams are often not great at adapting their forecasting to forecast accurately during crises. Discount their forecast materially, and instead of relying on their forecast, spend time with customers to develop your own forecast.

  • A consensus-driven CEO will have to be a little more command-and-conquer during a crisis, while still allowing for a network of teams approach

  • Your customers’ priorities change during a downturn. In normal (non-crisis) times, they’re typically [1] revenue, [2] innovation (their vision for where they’ll be 3-5 years out), and [3] cost savings. In a crisis, those priorities change to [1] cost savings, [2] revenue, and a distant [3] innovation. As a result, you may need to think about how [1] you can help customers reduce costs, [2] how you can keep existing revenue, [3] how you can up-sell and cross-sell, and lastly [4] how you can acquire new customers.

  • Your #1 focus must be surviving the crisis. But if you can comfortably survive it, your focus should not only be on the next month or quarter. Think about how you want to look coming out of the crisis, and optimize for that, too. Especially if the crisis is impacting your competitors, too.

Other notes

  • Crises usually last longer and are deeper than you think

  • But so long as there isn’t tragic and irrecoverable loss, they can often be an opportunity to come out even stronger and more successful than you would have been had the crisis not happened

Example: Initial Communication to Your Team

These are very different and very uncertain times. It’s impacted all of our lives, and we’re living these changes together. We’re all making sure our friends and family are safe, healthy, and have what they need. We’re all changing our habits to stay healthy. We’re all having to adapt to new guidelines and expectations. We’re having to do all this while trying to serve our community in a time of great need. We all know they depend on us for their health and safety.

I care deeply about all of you, and I will do anything I can to make sure you’re safe during this time.

We cannot control what’s going on out there, but we can determine how we respond. We don’t know yet whether this will last a few weeks or several months, but what we do know is that at some point, it will be over. And when it’s over, we’re going to want to be in the best state possible, not in a worse state. The courage and leadership we demonstrate, the decisions we make, and the actions we take will determine whether we come out of this in a better state than we otherwise would if we don’t adapt and act at all.

This is not the type of crisis we could have anticipated and prepared for. So we will need to improvise a response. No one has all the answers or all the facts, and neither do I, but I’m confident that together we will figure out how to adapt and navigate these turbulent times. These might be a few things to consider, and I invite everyone to contribute their thoughts and ideas:

How can we make the work environment more safe for our team?

  • What do we need to do to work from home?

  • What can we do to facilitate a more “contactless” experience between our technicians and our customers?

  • What can we do to facilitate a more “contactless” experience between our technicians and our office? Or our technicians and our suppliers?

How can we let customers who need us for their health know that we are available to help them?

We have always known that our community depends on us to protect their health. This might be a time where they realize that more than ever. These moments may forever redefine how our community sees us as critical to their lives. This may be the time our community needs us more than ever. We stand ready to serve them. And when the world returns to normal, we will be stronger for having come together, adapted, and persevered through this. And we will be positioned for even greater success from there.

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