On 14th November 2016 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Kaikoura that rippled through the surrounding regions of the upper South Island and lower North Island.

At the time I was working at BNZ leading a team of 180 people of which just over 50% were located in Wellington and were instantly displaced from the building we were working in at the time, along with many other staff. As much as the threat of earthquake is always a looming reality in NZ, it was still an unplanned change that hit suddenly, was highly disruptive and placed a high amount of fear and uncertainty into the team around what lay ahead.

Fortunately no one was hurt in my team but there was considerable worry and concern, along with a stirring up of trauma and memories of a previous big earthquake that had hit in July 2013 and had also meant sustained evacuation of the same BNZ building in Wellington.

It was an interesting time that tested me as a leader particularly as the majority of my Wellington team had to work remotely for nearly 3 months. I had to put into practice a lot of what I preach around leading through change and uncertainty (because a crisis is a large uncertain and unplanned change). I have no doubt I made some mistakes during that time, but I also grew as a leader and learned truly what counts when leading through a crisis.

With the current world being in upheaval with the COVID19 pandemic escalating with rippling impacts by the day, I thought it might be useful to share some of my top tips and lessons I’ve learnt first-hand from my own experience leading through a crisis. I’m aware the crisis we are facing now is not the same but there are still some parallels that can be drawn in how to lead through it.

Before I go on, I want to emphasis that I didn’t lead the team through the earthquake alone – there was an amazing team of leaders at BNZ that really collaborated and teamed together during the event – that went on for some months.

Read on to find out my top tips when leading through a crisis.

COMMUNICATE HONESTLY AND REGULARLY

Good communication is the 101 of leading during change and indeed a crisis, but it’s not enough to merely communicate, you need to do it darn well. Bad communication can be as destructive as no communication at all. By bad communication I’m talking about misinformation (aka fake news), over information, complicated information, non-relevant information and minimal or lack of information. I could actually write a whole article just on communication (and maybe I will) but for now here are some pointers.

Ensure communications are factual from well trusted and researched resources.

Keep the communications frequent at the initial stages of the crisis particularly and then at a regular cadence when things hopefully and eventually calm a little.

Be clear on what action is being taken and what you need from those you are communicating to.
It’s a good idea to set out early on some foundational key message themes as a framework for all ongoing comms. For example, you might have a theme about ensuring the teams safety as a priority at all times, another about providing innovative alternative ways to assist teams while working from home, or another about providing emotional support and being responsive to raised concerns. All future correspondence can be mapped to this framework which also helps those receiving them as they start to see a pattern.

Keep communications as simple and easy to understand as possible. In a crisis situation people are at a heightened state of worry which turns on their brains stress response center and also shuts down the part of the brain that helps people process information. This is why it’s so important to keep things clear and concise whilst being informative. If you have any interim processes and ways of working, you want to explain, make sure that they are so easy to comprehend a 10 year old could get it.

Jacinda Ardern – an example of a great leader during a crisis

BE UPFRONT ABOUT WHAT YOU ‘DON’T’ KNOW AS WELL AS WHAT YOU ‘DO’

Leaders are often reluctant to admit what they don’t know as they perceive it as a sign of weakness and not having their finger on the pulse. However, in a crisis information is evolving all the time, you simply cannot know it all. Therefore, be clear and upfront not only about what you DO know but also what you DON’T know, acknowledging what is likely on everyone’s mind, whilst providing reassurance that you will provide more info when you know it. This display of transparency will show your authenticity as a leader and help gain trust and respect, it will also help dampen the potential for rumours and conspiracy theories that can run amok in a crisis when people have a lack of information.

BE PRESENT AND VISIBLE

Your presence and visibility as a leader are essential. Yep, no doubt you have a long list of important things to do, but as a leader in a crisis your number one priority is to be there for your team. Ensure you are both physically and mentally present. If you are not co-located with your team and logistics are tricky (which they may well be) keep connected using other channels like video and tele conferences, social media, webchats, email comms, but also ensure there is leadership presence on the ground where teams you lead are based.


Nothing trumps physical presence; it shows the team they matter and are a priority. However, remember presence is more than just physical location it’s about truly listening and focusing your sole attention in the moment on the team. It’s easy to be physically in the room but mentally somewhere else. If you’re checking your phone, taking calls, in the building but locked away in an office – that’s not being present. Give verbal and physical cues that you are being attentive and ensure you listen and respond to feedback, so your team knows they are heard.

KEEP CALM AND ROLE MODEL LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF

Research shows that emotions are contagious, particularly if there is a strong emotional bond OR there is a perceived power difference. This means your emotional tone as a leader has a direct ripple effect on those you lead. If you are flustered, tense, snappy or anxious it’s likely your team will be like that too. If you are calm, helpful, supportive and connected there is increased probability the team will lean that way. It’s likely you may feel stressed and anxious, as well as a whole range of other emotions because you are impacted as much as your team. This is why your mindful self-awareness of your feelings and behaviours is crucial because what you feel and role model will impact your team.

Your first mission is to check in with yourself and notice your current emotional tone and name it, without judgement, you are human after all. Then work to bring yourself to some state of calm, in whatever way works for you, either by talking to someone you trust and can support you, or you may like to use meditation, or whatever techniques you have in your toolkit that will ground you in the moment. STOP is a useful quick and simple mindfulness practice you can try, here is a link to stop and some other useful little mindfulness based models like RAIN that you may find helpful.

Remember that you are of no use to your team if you are frenetically bouncing around in a panicked, unstable state, or burnt out and exhausted. Self-care is as important for you as a leader as it is for your team, eat nutritious food, get some sleep, avoid alcohol and have take downtime doing something that boosts your energy and resilience, because as the saying goes “You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can attend to others”. Your aim is to be the ‘cat’s paw’ of calm and control during a crisis, that says without words ‘you got this’, and ‘you got them’ and if that means YOU need to ask for help, or take a break, so be it.

DON’T DITHER ON MAKING DECISIONS

As a leader you will likely be the decision maker on a whole heap of stuff so don’t dither. A crisis needs quick thinking and decisive action. This doesn’t mean being impulsive – you still need to do your research to inform your decisions, but now is not the time to sit on the fence. Just because you are the leader during the crisis doesn’t mean you are an expert in the crisis itself, so don’t go it alone. Gain access to trusted advisors and suitable experts that can advise, then, if you still find yourself undecided, take a few moments to pause and breath (again see STOP meditation in point above) and see what decision potentially floats top of mind. You may well make a few wrong decisions, as this is after all new territory, if that happens, face into it quickly and change course rapidly. Leaders that admit quickly to their mistakes show a brave display of vulnerability that again builds trust and respect, it’s when you try to cover it up there’s problems.

KEEP IN PLACE SOME FAMILIAR RITUALS

It’s easy to focus on everything being so different in a crisis and there is often as much mourning and grieving for the loss of normal everyday BAU life, as there is fear for personal safety and what the future holds. Keep in place regular work rituals where practical like team meetings or having a coffee together; whatever you normally do that is still realistic to continue will provide people a little grounding comfort and reduce trauma.

Facing into a crisis situation is something to be taken seriously for sure, but that doesn’t mean people need to be serious all the time. It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of it all which only heightens our overly active imaginations as well as the trauma and panic. Keep to regular routines as much as you can and get creative about how to add some additional rituals to support people and provide a light distraction whilst not trivializing the situation. Go out to your team on ideas around this, they will probably be glad of the opportunity to add value and help. You could maybe even ask for volunteers to assist and take responsibility for this.

KEEP PEOPLE CONNECTED AND CHECK IN REGULARLY – EVEN IF THE WORST HAS PASSED

It’s important that you check in with your team regularly to ask how they are, not just in terms of their work but also how they are feeling and what support they need. They may not say initially as they will not know themselves, so keep asking. Even when the eye of the storm has passed your work is not done, there will be a ripple of impact in terms of how people work and how people feel, so you need to keep checking in and doing all of the above.

Human connection is a basic human need, even for introverts. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of human connection during this time, particularly if people end up having to be physically distanced. If you are in a situation where people are having to work from home this provides more of a challenge so pull out all the stops and get the creative juices flowing to look at ways of keeping the team connected to you and one another. Stand-ups via video conference, rosters for people to work in small groups at each other’s houses (if that’s feasible), regular team stand-ups, and innovative use of tools and apps like Slack and What’s App. There’s a useful article from Slack here on working remotely from home that might useful.

So those a few of my top tips for leading through a crisis, I hope they are of use to whoever comes across this article. There are so many other things I could say but this is the cream comes top of mind right now.

This is where you as a leader are needed more than ever.

When I was thrown into a crisis situation it tested me more than any challenge I’d faced as a leader before, but it also made me aware of where my value as a leader was really absolutely crucial. It reminded me of something my old running coach used to say to me back when I was a competitive distance runner. He said his role wasn’t about about when things were trucking along ok and I was training well, hitting PB’s and getting some race wins. It was when things weren’t going so well, when I was injured, sick, facing unplanned adversity, or mental wobbles that his role really came into play, that’s where he was needed and added the most value, to support and guide me through the challenges and chaos….and that is your role during a crisis, to be the North Star through the storm.

I’m interested to know your tips for leading through a crisis too so if you have any please place a comment at the end of this article.

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