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Employee Engagement Leadership HR TuneUp

Leadership in Times of Crisis: Key Competencies for Leaders of Any Organization

By Suzanne Simpson on April, 3 2020
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Suzanne Simpson

The world has never experienced a crisis quite like the global Coronavirus pandemic.  Not only is it threatening global health and well-being, it is having an unprecedented impact on our businesses and economies.

Now more than ever, we need strong leaders to take charge and guide us through these difficult times so that we come out the other side able to renew our economies and return to more prosperous, healthy and satisfying lives.

So what are the characteristics of effective leaders in times of crisis?  In fact, they are generally the same as those needed during more stable times. However, if we look at things through the lens of a competency-based approach, there are certainly some competencies that come to the forefront as being essential for superior leadership performance during challenging times.

Watch now: Dr. Suzanne Simpson shares her thoughts on leadership during these unprecedented times.


Framing the comparison


As we look within our organizations and beyond we see leaders who are inspirational, transformational and collaborative. But if you’ve been in the workforce for long enough, you’ve also surely had the experience of working with leaders who fall short of those benchmarks.

There’s a simple way to frame the comparison of high-performing leaders and those who are falling short: take a couple minutes and think of a few phrases that complete the following:

“We need leaders who …….”

I have addressed this question with a few characteristics shown, through scientific research, as resulting in great outcomes, whether within organizations or at a broader level.

Leadership Requirement #1:

We need leaders who use the available data and information to make informed decisions and take actions that are anticipatory, effective and timely.

In times of crisis, we may not have a complete picture or all the data available. Notwithstanding, leaders must be able to extrapolate from the information they have to make informed decisions. 

In a world context, that may mean sorting through sometimes conflicting and often challenging data from their medical experts and acting appropriately to mitigate risk. Or perhaps consulting with economists, food supply personnel, and education ministers to minimize the impact to all the things that we often take for granted in western society.

In the business world, data on the impacts is obviously of a different nature, but in similar fashion, could come up the chain through a variety of sources. For example, what leading indicators are available to forecast the impacts of the pandemic on your business? What information are leaders getting from their sales and marketing teams? How are their existing customers adjusting project timelines and external spending?

Leaders must be able to trust the data presented to them, to Think Strategically, Make timely and effective Plans and Decisions, and hold others and themselves Accountable for achieving those plans, but not so rigidly that as new data come in, plans and priorities cannot be adjusted and redirected quickly as the situation evolves.

Time is precious, and these competencies allow leaders to act quickly.

Free Resource:

Leading Change: How to Develop Transformational Leaders Using Competencies

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Leadership Requirement #2:

We need leaders who inspire others to take action and achieve change quickly.

During times of crisis, people need leaders to follow a course of action that will result in the best outcome.  Leaders must Inspire Others through their actions and words and Lead Change by example.

Exemplifying personal Integrity is also much needed during these times: as noted by Forbes, “employees look to their leaders for examples of what behavior is acceptable.” While this of course applies in a moral context, it can also apply in the sense of being a strong, outwardly-positive pillar for people to rally around.

During these difficult times where it’s easy to feel down in the dumps, leaders must be able to propel others to achieve herculean or heroic feats, well beyond what they think themselves capable of during “normal” circumstances. 

Leaders must be able to think “outside the box”, but also encourage people to learn and think for themselves to come up with Creative and Innovative actions and solutions to address unprecedented problems. 

To this end, leaders must put some faith in the people that have been driving the business from below, and trust others to be Accountable in taking timely and effective action to get the job done.

Leadership Requirement #3:

We need leaders who are empathetic and understand the plight of others.

Naturally, business leaders are anxious in these times of uncertainty. After all, they are just people, like the rest of us. But given their prominence within an organization, it compels them to foster effective Communication, and be Empathic and Compassionate towards others as they go through difficult times. 

Not everyone has the same level of Resilience and tolerance for stress.  Leaders must understand this and act with kindness towards others. 

This requires leaders to be aware of their own actions and their impact on others -- in other words, possess a high degree of Emotional Intelligence.  Often, this must be accomplished in culturally diverse environments, where messages and communications might not always be appreciated or understood in the same way by different groups. 

In summary, leaders in a crisis must be able to put aside their own fears and anxieties. They must demonstrate courage and lead by example, showing that they are not asking people to do anything they are not prepared to do themselves.

HRSG has a variety of resources that provide further information on competency-based leadership: