How to be a good CEO in a crisis?

The Disruptive Leadership Model can help you lead in a crisis, but first you need to manage your own energy as a leader. 

Leading in a crisis is hard. 

A week ago I realised I was failing as a leader. I felt stressed, I didn’t have a clear plan, I wasn’t communicating well enough with my team and our execution was suffering. 

Like many leaders I’ve spoken to, as the crisis evolved, I found myself feeling out of control and under a lot of pressure, commercially and personally. I found I was focusing on trying to solve the things I had control over, and slipping into operator mode.

By taking some time to reflect, and using a simple framework, I was able to get myself back on track quickly. I wanted to share this thought process and framework because I think it could be helpful if you are a leader navigating the current crisis.

“Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.” 

Peter F. Drucker

Drucker is a true leadership guru, credited as being the ‘founder of modern management’. His work, which includes ideas like ‘management by objectives and self-control’, helped shape practical and philosophical foundations of modern businesses. What is in this quotation, is the order: managing yourself and your energy, before those around you. Initially, that can seem jarring, the default is to think about the team and business first, right? But in reality, if you are on the backfoot as a leader, can you really lead those around you effectively?  The problem is less about the substandard decisions you might be making. Your job is to create leverage, so the real cost is the impact you are having on those around you. 

With this in mind, here is a simple process and framework to help you lead yourself and your team, or business effectively in a crisis. 

1. Manage your own energy first. Take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you doing personally? Are you approaching the crisis on the front foot, or do you feel like you are just surviving? How is this impacting your ability to lead? You can’t change your environment, but with some attention you control which mode you are in.  What could you do to get yourself back on the front foot? What things normally help you to be at your best as a leader? What actions can you commit to now to help you be more at your best? As a word of warning, these are difficult questions to answer and great leaders continue to work on these throughout their careers. It can be helpful to talk it through with your support network, leadership team, family, friends, or a coach if you have one. Check out Leadership Plain and Simple, by Steve Radcliffe and The Inspired Leader, by Andy Bird, which both explore this idea in detail.

2. A framework to help you lead in a crisis. The right model can help clarify your thinking, give you confidence that you are working on the right things and most importantly, lead to better outcomes.  At T-minus, we developed The Disruptive Leadership Model by working together with hundreds of startup and scaleup leaders around the world – leaders living and breathing disruption and change. We studied the behaviours that helped them succeed and created a simple, four-stage model to help teach leadership and help solve leadership challenges. Here is how you can apply it in a crisis situation:

  • Insight – With emotion aside, how is the crisis impacting your business? What do you know? What don’t you know? Consider the possible risks, and rank them in terms of potential impact and how likely they are to happen.
  • Ambition – Given the situation, what is your vision for how you will emerge from this as an organisation, as a team and as individuals? How will you communicate this concisely, and with measurable goals? Exceptional leaders see the big picture and are fearless in their ambition, but are also grounded in realism.
  • Connection – now more than ever you need to connect and engage the people around you. You can’t solve this alone. Now is the time to inspire, to be a catalyst, to be courageous with your feedback. Exceptional leaders care deeply about the people around them and are prepared to show it. 
  • Execute / Experimentfor startups, things are uncertain most of the time. A crisis just amplifies the uncertainties. What are your options? How can you test them? Successful leaders have the humility to know they don’t know, and are able to balance the need for creativity and an experimentation mindset with ruthless focus and prioritisation. 

3. Reflect & iterate. In a crisis, like in any situation where things change rapidly, so must our plans. Set a cadence to refresh this process; reflect on what is happening to you personally, how you are leading, whether your vision needs to change, how you are connecting with those around you and whether you and your team are really focused on the right things.

You can complete the above exercise on your own, or with members of your leadership team, in hours rather than days. If you are a leader navigating the stormy waters that lay ahead, lean on the people around you, ensure you take time to look after yourself and use a simple framework like the one above to help you lead successfully.

It goes without saying, but good luck on the journey ahead. Feel free to connect with me or the team at T-minus – we are here to help!

Also, check out the free webinars we are running about:

Leading in a Crisis – CEOs & Leading in a Crisis – L&D Leaders