Leading in a crisis

To say 2020 has been an unusual year is an understatement. The international health crisis has changed almost every aspect of our lives, testing the values we hold and spinning us off in different directions. What was certain yesterday is now ambiguous and evolving rapidly. We are operating on insufficient often conflicting information, and it feels like we’re testing the ground as we go. Add in the complexities of managing a team and delivering results, fears about job security and health, and working from home and as a leader, you might be at your wits’ end. COVID-19 and its second-order effects have been quite the induction to leadership in the rough. So, how do you keep it all together?

Keep informed

There has been a lot of conflicting information during this pandemic, adding even more complexity to decision-making. To be an effective leader, you need to keep informed. The information you have determines the quality of the decisions you make. Watch the news, read papers and blogs, listen to podcasts, keep track of what other companies are doing in and out of your industry, and seek advice from peers, partners, and external consultants. However, it is now more important than ever to have direct contact with your team and the customer. Create psychological safety so that your team can tell you the challenges and successes on the ground and actively seek customer feedback. You can’t fix or learn from what you don’t know, and it will hurt if you don’t listen to and respond to your customer needs.

Make the decisions

But how do you make decisions in ambiguity? Isn’t it better to wait until you have more information? “Shelter in place” may work for some instances, but this pandemic has rewarded fast movers. While it might be tempting to wait until there is more clarity on the situation, you need to maintain an urgency level. To factor in the changing circumstances, make your decision-making process iterative so that you can adapt to new information and feedback from your team and customers. The focus is not on being right but being flexible and adaptive. Don’t be wedded to your ideas and decisions and if they don’t work out, take corrective measures as soon as possible. Be proactive: it can be life or death for you and your team healthwise or even your business in terms of sustainability.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

During this pandemic, it is perhaps more prudent to overcommunicate with your team and customers. Everyone is operating in uncertainty, and as a leader, you need to acknowledge problems, give direction, offer reassurance and give hope. How you communicate during this pandemic is the difference between panic and chaos and predictability and continuity. Silence is perceived as bad news and creates unnecessary panic, so get in front of it and tell your story. This address by Jacinda Ardern is an excellent example of getting communication right. Regular meetings with your teams or updates via email to your customers could save you many headaches.

When it comes to communicating bad news, don’t pass the buck. Deliver the message yourself, explaining your rationale, and taking ownership of the decisions that led to it. Be compassionate, empathetic, and affirming. You can still come out on top with layoffs, hiring freezes, salary cuts, and service delivery issues if you communicate honestly and promptly.

Look for opportunities

The pandemic has opened up numerous possibilities. How can you take advantage of this while staying true to your mission? At the beginning of the lockdown, none of us wanted to go into supermarkets, hospitals, or banks. These industries shifted some functions to digital to continue serving their customers. Tour companies like Kenya Outdoors went from local and international trips to day trips at the Nairobi National Park and Ngong Hills. A crisis can come with opportunity. Look out for it and innovate accordingly.

Build a Community

Working from home has increased the complexity of leading a team. Instead of having everyone in one place, we are now leading distributed teams. How do you maintain culture or enhance collaboration when we’re all working separately from home? Virtual town halls and all-hands meetings are essential to keep everyone apprised of what is happening in the company. You can also incorporate bonding and team building activities into your team meetings. I’ve seen companies conduct virtual morning workouts or meditation sessions together; another does a virtual coffee date once a week or virtual all-hands every Friday to discuss different topics that affect the employees. Even with the distance, you can build camaraderie.

Care for the team

With the uncertainty, it is easy to focus on results. You may feel that this is the one thing you can control, but the last thing you want is to come across as the logical, unfeeling leader during these strange times. We are all adapting differently to the changes around us, and you need to be mindful of this to support your team effectively. Outstanding leadership begins with knowing your team, their circumstances, and preferences and using this information to alter your support for each individual. Having empathy and compassion does not mean you let the deadlines and deliverables slide. It means being clear on deliverables and timelines but offering flexible working hours so parents can spend time with their children. It is taking an uncertain environment and creating predictability where you can. It is authentic, honest conversations focusing on fixing problems rather than assigning blame. It is offering support and checking in frequently with your teams and not assuming that everything is fine.


Some leaders have been on 24/7 since the pandemic started. Constant worries about responding to the changes, trying to keep up with the information, supporting our teams, and keeping the company afloat can be exhausting. And, this doesn’t include responsibilities at home, now that we are working from home. While you may thrive on challenges, remember this is a marathon, and though we are running it a brisk pace, you need to take care of yourself to last the duration of the race.

  • Create a simple daily routine that gives you time for work, home, and self-care. Schedule time to read, exercise, play with your kids, and date-night with your partner.
  • Take breaks when you need them and learn to say no. Instead of taking up every task, delegate effectively, and empower your team to take on some responsibilities.
  • Be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes and wrong decisions. Be ready to take corrective measures rather than focusing on self-criticism and doubt.
  • Create a support system of peers and mentors who can be your sounding board and offer advice and encouragement.
  • Be present and in the moment. Amid all the negative news and scary realities, good things are happening. Find a positive in every situation to keep yourself going.

Leadership is not easy, even at the best of times. COVID-19 has been an epic test of character and determination for leaders everywhere. No training or induction course could have prepared you for the times we are in. Take it one step at a time, one decision at a time and always act in the best interests of today and tomorrow.