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Five Keys for Leading in Crisis

How you lead now matters. People are worried. Time is short, and the future is uncertain. People need someone to follow when the path is treacherous and unknown. The COVID-19 pandemic should and can be the best leadership performance of your life. 

Your job in crisis (whether supervisor or executive) is to: 

  • Inspire and motivate your people to do a difficult job; 
  • Make tough and difficult decisions quickly; 
  • Look out for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of your people; and 
  • Keep the organization operationally, relationally, and financially healthy to fight another day. 

You must be worthy of following. Here are five straightforward suggestions for how to do this. 

1. Focus on What You Can Control

Never have we faced something so nebulous and challenging to control. Unlike a natural disaster, plane crash, or active shooter, this event is not location-specific, transcends traditional incident command, unfolds slowly, and will likely last months. 

It’s hard to control a virus you can’t see. You can’t control if the next town over will surge. You can’t make a nursing home use proper precautions. You can’t create PPE out of thin air. You can’t manage the national supply chain. You can’t control call volumes. You can’t control whether an employee will become a carrier. You can’t ensure your people will not be infected. You can’t fully protect your employees’ families. What will happen to the economy is anyone’s guess. You can’t control whether the virus will mutate and come back again. You can’t control the glut of doomsday media stories. You can’t control how long this will go on. The list goes on. 

Here’s the leadership need: Focus on what you can control. This is how one both leads and manages in a crisis. 

You can control yourself. You can control how you show up. You can control the narrative and story you give your people. You can control whether you lead a culture of chaos or calm. You can control the tone of your team. You can manage the resources you have. You can control the focus of your team. You can control how you use the time you have today and many more things. 

Amid crisis workers want leaders to demonstrate trust, compassion, stability, and hope. A key predictor of low worry and high confidence is whether each employee believes and experiences that the organization is looking out them.1 You can control this. 

In a challenging and complex situation, a psychological shift occurs when the focus is on the controllable. Talking about and acting on the controllable motivates. It moves attention from the vast and vague to the specific and doable. It moves people from feeling helpless to action. This is a small and subtle distinction but psychologically significant. Impossible mountains are climbed by shifting focus from the peak to the next step on the trail. 

2. Tell the Full, Dark Truth

Great crisis leaders understand that followers need to know what’s going on. This event is filled with uncertainty, danger, misinformation, lies, false hope, mismanagement, hype, and political blame. Followers need to hear what’s really going on. In difficult times our imagination runs wild. People want the truth, even if the truth is “I don’t know” or “this is dangerous and will get worse” or “I need you to work harder than ever before.” Skirting the truth harms the leader-follower.

Here’s the psychology: Our human capacity to imagine a future with limited information is part of our primary survival mechanism. It is part of how we protect ourselves. When we suspect we’re not getting the truth or there are secrets, our imagination fills in the blanks. When we imagine stuff related to survival, we imagine the worst. Imagining the worst is our negativity bias. Additionally, when leaders offer false or unfounded hope, trust is destroyed, and people make up their narrative. Great crisis leaders tell the full, dark truth and then motivate by incorporating that truth into a story about the way forward. 

3. Create a Powerful Story

Stories psychologically power humans. It is through stories that we are motivated, inspired, and make sense and meaning out of hardship, suffering, and sacrifice. It is also through stories that people become frightened, lose heart, doubt leaders, and lose motivation. The key is telling a powerful story that is compelling, aspirational, and connects with your employees.

COVID-19 hasn’t changed the mission of emergency medical services. The mission is to be ready, respond, take care of people with compassion and competence, and come home safe. 

But this event is different. It’s not a single event. The need is for prepared employees who are willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice has always been inherent in this high-risk occupation. People get hurt, sick, and die in high-risk occupations. However, the potential sacrifice we’re asking for now has some unusual characteristics. The risk has an ominous quality because it is an unseen virus. Becoming sick five days after your shift has a different psychological feel than a typical line-of-duty injury or death. This sacrifice involves the potential of workers’ families and friends becoming ill or dying. Today the sacrifice need by many organizations is more mundane. The sacrifice is for employees to prepare and patiently wait. 

So what motivating story will you tell to inspire your people through this? Motivating stories must be authentic, truthful, straightforward, and stirring—stories people can embrace and make their own. They should match the situation and inspire people to the sacrifice needed. 

Create a story that appeals to the heart. It may be as simple as this: 

Our mission and role place us on the frontline of a worldwide disaster. Coronavirus is likely to be the most significant event in our careers. Most of us never dreamed the “big one” would be a virus. But this is what we must deal with. This is our big call and a big opportunity. Your skills and compassion are needed more than ever. What you have to offer is just what our community needs. 

The road ahead will be tough and long. Our job has the potential to be dangerous, not only to us but to our families and friends. And while this may be dangerous, we are made for this. We do this better than anyone. We take difficult, crazy, risky challenges and handle them. This is where we show our stuff. 

Together this will also be our finest hour. When things fall apart, we fall together. Whether we get crazy busy or end up just sitting around being ready, we are going to handle this as the most important event of our careers. We will do whatever is needed. We’ll give everyone we help our very best. We’ll take care of each other. And when this is over, we will look back and know this was our finest hour. 

Draw from this story or find your unique story, but you must have a narrative. Otherwise people will make up their own. 

4. Recognize Your Symbolic Role

Humans are symbolic creatures. We wear uniforms, wave flags, give wedding rings, and play bagpipes at funerals. Symbols are things or people that represent something else—often something abstract like confidence, commitment, or hope. Leaders are potent symbols in crisis.

During the 56 straight days of bombing in London during World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would often be seen outside on the rooftops watching the air raid. He knew Londoners needed to see his courage and hope. When leaders show up on the frontline, help with ordinary chores, demonstrate sacrifice, work in the middle of the night, serve food, wear the uniform with the troops—they become powerful positive symbols. They become negative symbols when they are absent, hide information, bark orders, show their fear, don’t trust, micromanage, and are unwilling to toil alongside their people. 

Consider how you are symbolic (because you are). What is the symbol you want to give your people? 

5. Get a Firm Handle on Your Internal Crap

Finally, leaders are human. This a pregnant opportunity for leadership growth. Our inner life and blind spots come with us when we lead. Our fears, insecurities, egos, ambitions, failures, old wounds, indecision, and obsessions show up and get magnified in times of stress and pressure. The pandemic is impacting our spouses/partners, our investments, our kids, our future, and our politics. This stuff triggers our default way of reacting to the world. Every leader has an Achilles’ heel. If you are short-tempered, hesitant, not trusting, or conflict-adverse, it will all show up in tough times and likely become magnified.

Bring a disciplined awareness of your Achilles’ heel. Humble yourself and know your crap is coming with you and keep it in check. But know it is your greatest opportunity for growth. We manage reflexive behaviors by getting them out in front of us. Take the next step in leadership maturity and use this crisis to develop. Let this be a time when the best possible version of you is manifest.  


1. Harter J. COVID-19: What Employees Need From Leaders Right Now. Gallup Workplace,

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. He has been involved in emergency services for 40 years and writes and researches on leadership, culture, community and psychology.

Aarron Reinert, MA, NRP, is a consultant and partner in SafeTech Solutions. He is president of the American Ambulance Association, executive director of Lakes Region EMS in Minnesota, and founder of the EMS Leadership Academy. 


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