The Purposeful Leader

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Leading during a crisis

Leadership, Management

All of my clients are leading during a pandemic — many are leading organizations, some are leading households, all are leading their lives. We’ve been talking a lot about their changing circumstances, and about how they want to respond.

Before meeting with clients at the beginning of the US COVID crisis, I did some reflecting on my own experience responding to and managing emergencies, and about what is most important in order to lead well over an unpredictable period. Below are my top three strategies/tips.

Normalize Everything, but Don’t Indulge

Emotions happen, they exist. They are all normal. Fear is normal. Scarcity is normal. Sadness is normal. It’s all part of being human. It’s normal for you, and it’s normal for anyone you might be supporting, leading, or loving through this.

For us to maintain emotional health, we have to expect that we and those around us will have emotions. We might even feel overtaken by them sometimes. That’s normal, too.

The key is to allow everything, not resist it or think it means we can’t lead or do our jobs, or that others can’t. The key is to allow it and keep moving forward, to notice the brain wanting to go down the anxiety rabbit hole, and reminding it that there’s work to do. The key is to not indulge in our emotional experience — sit in it, believing that it’s some kind of objective truth.

This can be particularly tricky for leaders to navigate. It involves creating space for your team and what they’re experiencing, then sharing your expectations about how we’re getting work done right now. It looks like thanking people in advance for overdelivering for customers when they’re having their own emotional experience. It sounds like sharing your own heartbreak, frustration, etc. in an appropriate way and then sharing how you’re channeling it into your work.

Side note: it’s also important not to project. I’ve never been a fan of (though am absolutely guilty of using) phrases that start with, “we’re all feeling . . .” Because that’s not ever true. Likewise, it’s important to understand that even if you’ve moved past something quickly, your team may not have. I’m the queen of trying to get back to business before others are ready.

Constrain + Prioritize

It is always true that while our brain wants us to do everything, very well, right now, we cannot. And never are we more susceptible to believing and trying to meet that standard than when our circumstances change rapidly.

Here are the only three choices:

  • Do the absolute most important things, very well.
  • Do a greater number of important things, pretty well.
  • Do an even greater number of things, so-so.

There is no actual right choice here. You can decide that you want to do as many things as possible in a day, quality of execution be damned. You can decide to work 16 hour days, whether you’re working on one vitally important thing or 17 lower-priority things. It doesn’t matter.

But determining what’s important ahead of time, and knowing what your plan is for execution is the only way you can measure whether you’re meeting any kind of criteria. So often, in emergency situations, we run around attempting to do everything in sight, and end up exhausted without being able to articulate what we achieved. And when we approach work like this, there is literally no way to determine whether or not we were successful. Or to guarantee that any particular thing will get done.

So do yourself the favor of identifying what work, or what kinds of work, are most important and how you want to get things done.


I know. Right now, invest is a trigger word. Stay with me.

Anything you do that gives you more back than you put into it, I call dividend time. Because it pays dividends. It’s an investment, not an outlay of cash on a depreciating asset.

For example, an hour of planning your week gives you back at least twice that time.

4 hours of exercise each week gives energy, focus + mental clarity, making your hours more effective, and (in my case anyway) saves hours of managing the fallout from being difficult to be around.

Getting enough sleep.

Meal planning.

Think time or white space in your calendar.

You likely have your own. The things that help you be your best and give back more than they cost.

We are most prone to drop these things when the going gets tough, but when the going gets tough is when they’re most important.

When managing a backcountry emergency, you don’t send a responder down a trail in flip-flops, even if it means waiting longer so that she can put on the right shoes. You don’t further risk life to save a life, you don’t risk the rest of the response crew having two backcountry injuries instead of just one. That depletes everyone.

Invest. Get your shoes on. Then head out on the trail.

It feels intuitive to react to an emergency. But the truth is that the amount of chaos we experience is directly related to how well we plan, prioritize, and take care of ourselves while we are leading through crisis. If you are ready to be in charge of your leadership or life experience in a new way, crisis or not, schedule a consultation call, and let’s explore working together.