The Ultimate Test in Leadership: Managing Through a Crisis


Good leadership is hard to find. The way a person acts and behaves when things are not going well tends to ascertain whether they have what it takes to truly lead. The characteristics of great leader are given the ultimate test during a crisis. We reflect on these qualities during what has been an exceptionally challenging year for Australians.

The obstacles faced by Australian leaders in 2020

Economically, this year is expected to be the hardest hit since the Second World War. Businesses all over the world and across many sectors have been gravely impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Furthermore, many Australian businesses were already battling the effects of the 2019/2020 bushfires.

Australian bushfire crisis

Harsh drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures led to a catastrophic bushfire season. The ecological impacts of the disaster have been tragic for Australia’s forests and wildlife caused widespread social and economic strife for rural communities. The NSW bushfires were amongst the worst and the longest in Australia’s history. According to market research company Roy Morgan, 26% of Australian businesses were affected by the bushfire crisis at its peak, with the food and accommodation services, transport, postal and warehousing sectors bearing the biggest brunt.

While the long-term impacts are difficult to predict, Australia has seen a downturn in businesses directly or indirectly affected by the bushfires. Those who did not lose their livelihoods due to the bushfires may have otherwise missed out on trade due to extended periods of poor air quality equating to a lack of patrons and therefore income. Leading a business impacted by such a natural disaster is incredibly difficult.

Coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is causing grave concerns across the globe. Global communities have been living with COVID-19 for almost a year, and we’re seeing many fall victim to second and third coronavirus waves as countries move in and out of lockdown. With global economic activity shrinking further and per capita incomes on the decline, this is a challenging time to lead a business and/or staff.

Past pandemics have taught us that viruses eventually come to an end, but we don’t know when this crisis will cease. In the meantime, we are already seeing COVID-19 emptying business venues across every corner of the globe. The decisions that leaders make now, as testing as they are, matter more than ever.

The Do’s and Don’ts of effective leadership through a crisis

The ultimate test in leadership happens when things don’t go to plan. With so much against them, 2020 is a tough year for those in a position of power. There is a huge level of anxiety associated with the unknown and because no one knows exactly when this virus will pass, the actions taken by a leader during this crisis will reflect on the behaviours of the company’s employees. This in turn determines the fate of a business.

Do: communicate clearly

Crisis management means taking appropriate action during an unexpected situation. Regardless of the circumstance, clear communication imperative. Without the ability to effectively communicate an action plan during a crisis, people in power may lose the trust of those who look to them for direction. A lack of confidence with senior personnel may lead to resentment, which can have devastating effects on a business. Having open communications between teams may also empower staff members to present new ways to manage the crisis. More problems are solved when everyone works together, and those who gain the support of their employees are likely to achieve greater success than those who don’t.

Don’t: panic

Others look up to a person in power when faced with a crisis. If a business leader panics, the rest of the team crumbles. Making rapid decisions when faced with adversity is stressful, however a powerful leader will not redirect this stress to others, but take ownership of the situation. The ideal would be to define priorities, identify what can or can’t be managed and delegate the right tasks to the right people.

Do: lead with kindness and empathy

It is important to remember that in a crisis, fear and anxiety peaks. Coping mechanisms are different for everyone. Some people work well under pressure but others may not know how to manage their stress levels. How one copes with stress is largely dependant on the support network as well as financial health and emotional wellbeing. A strong leader will bring kindness, empathy and humanity to the table, understanding that people are at a higher risk of burnout during a crisis.

Don’t: brush bad news under the carpet

A leader is the first to bear the burden of bad news. This is a weight to carry but burying one’s head in the sand does not bode well. A problem shared is a problem halved. That said, how does one share negative news without causing undue worry? Sugar-coating the truth not ideal, particularly when there is no confirmed end to the crisis. A good leader will take ownership of the situation by coming up with a swift, strategic and actionable communication plan to share with others.

Do: prepare to adapt

Effectively leading in a crisis means adopting flexible working practices. We have experienced this with the rise and fall of coronavirus cases in Australia, and the restrictions associated with the on-going pandemic. A good leader will adapt to the change, not fight it. Overcoming hurdles during a crisis mean staying the course but seeking other ways through and around the obstacle. Stick to the plan but adjust, adapt and improve.

Don’t: do what everyone else is doing

Constructive crisis management means leading by example, not waiting to see what everyone else is doing and mirroring that. A strong leader carves out a crisis plan outlining immediate and long-term steps specific to the situation. Remembering that not all operations will be faced with the same dilemmas. One must make decisions based on what is right for the business.

With crisis comes opportunity

Although it might be difficult to see the wood for the trees during a crisis, some leaders may envisage new opportunities with the change of circumstance. Many businesses have had no choice but to adapt to survive through the coronavirus pandemic.

The hospitality industry is such an example. We’ve seen bars offer home-delivered cocktails and restaurants offer virtual cooking master classes. Cafes have been selling takeaway food packs and delivering special meal deals. Teachers, speakers, coaches and workshop facilitators have replaced face-to-face lessons with Zoom classes. Australian distilleries have been pumping out hand sanitisers and commercial airlines have switched to cargo-only flights. None of these pivots would have been actioned were it not for key decision-makers thinking of new ways to trade in bleak times.

Workplaces that may appear otherwise unaffected by the crisis, have had to quickly modify working practices to adjust to the new working environment. This however, is not so much a hindrance but an opportunity to embrace 21st century innovation and technology. Moving manual procedures to digital, and long meetings to Zoom chats may, after all, work out better for long term productivity. Furthermore, if leaders continue to adopt flexible working arrangements, such as employees working, this means less time commuting and more opportunities for family time and exercise. This is better for the mental and physical health of employees. It is therefore imperative that leaders take advantage of new working practices and adopt digital driven technology. Embracing systematic changes during difficult times enables better workplace structures in the future.

Leadership is much more than a title

We are all leaders in one way or another. Whether we manage our own business, a team of people, or family responsibilities. Reputable leadership however, is much more than a titled position of power. True leadership is taking charge of every situation, of making difficult decisions that are appropriate to the circumstance. Leaders today have been faced with unforeseen circumstances, and this has drastically changed the roles of key decision-makers. The success of a leader in today’s landscape points to one’s actions, not their entitlement to power. Both the bushfire and pandemic crisis has taught Australians that leadership should not be measured in terms of monetary success, e.g. business wealth, driving revenue and market share. A crisis is the ultimate test of leadership. Great leadership demonstrates humility over authority. Those who encourage, support and guide others to work as a team through difficult times will be the ones left holding the flag.

Interested in learning how to lead your business through a crisis? Achieve your potential as a leader by learning how to make the right decisions for your business, or how to lead through strategy by signing up to a course that best suits your Leadership Development needs on Cosmitto.