Leading Before, During and After a Crisis

Leading Before, During and After a Crisis

As workplaces prepare for returning to the office, Jan Bazow, Fortis Leadership Founder and CEO, joined this panel conversation:

3 Aspects of Leadership During All Phases of Crisis

How can the leaders on this webinar best prepare for the future as they get ready to reopen?

What we know is that leadership is a tall order even without a crisis. Much is required from each of us even on a seemingly normal day—from casting a shared vision; to aligning your teams and championing the execution of their work. These 3 areas of focus are indeed a tall order and high calling.

What leadership traits are most important in circumstances like this?

During a crisis, I have found that these 3 focus areas remain critically important before, during and after the crisis. In working with our clients throughout this crisis, striving to align their teams and championing their work seems to be the most challenging.

Many leaders are sending their team members home temporarily and many are continuing to lead from a distance as the remote workplace has become the new normal. This disruption brings with it feeling perhaps fearful and disconnected for leaders and team members alike.

  • Creating connection with your teams and one-on-one with team members is even more important than ever before, during this significant time of disruption and change, and as you move into the resetting and recovery phases of this crisis.
  • Creating connection develops trust and fosters well-being. We have found that the leadership mindset and behaviors that most create that connection are empathy-flexibility-transparency.

If you already have a natural bent toward practicing empathy, flexibility, and transparency before the crisis, re-engaging your employees will not be as challenging.

However, if these traits don’t come as natural to you, you will want to be more intentional about practicing each of the three, as you move through this experience with your team members.


As you think about re-engaging your team members, finding empathy for each team member and their individual circumstances will be important.

Although we are all experiencing the same healthcare pandemic, the impact of that pandemic may be different for each team member. Putting yourself in each of their shoes will require leaders to provide an opportunity to share their stories, so to speak. This will take a bit more time and intention, as you are also in the process of thinking about bringing your business and operations back.

There will be some employees who are caring for young children and who will undergo childcare issues; there will be some who will be caring for elderly parents from a distance. Leaders will have to be mindful of an employee’s psychological readiness to return to work may be different. Some will be ready and willing, and some will be hesitant.

Making time to touch base with each team member and navigating those conversations will require intention, empathy, and compassion.


The second trait that you may need to more intentional about finding and practicing is Flexibility.

  • Flexibility in how you engage your workforce will be key.
  • Adaptability is a requirement. Because change is constant and inevitable, leaders must be flexible to succeed in and among this significant season change.

There are 3 types of flexibility: cognitive, emotional, and dispositional.

Cognitive Flexibility

Leaders who have cognitive flexibility are able to incorporate different thinking strategies into their planning, decision-making, and management of day-to-day work. They can simultaneously hold multiple scenarios in mind and can see when to shift and inject a change.

Perhaps you have demonstrated this by creating multiple different reopening scenarios, and have had to scrap several and create yet another one? Cognitive flexibility results in developing new approaches, staying open to other’s perspectives, and alternative plans.

Cognitive flexibility is being able to readily learn from experience and recognize when old approaches don’t work. I am imaging like many of our clients that you have demonstrated flexibility in your thinking on a daily basis.

Emotional Flexibility

Leaders with emotional flexibility vary their approach to dealing with their own and others’ emotions — an area that many leaders often are reluctant to consider. An emotionally flexible leader is comfortable with the process of change, including grieving, complaining, and resistance.

Adapting to change requires give and take between the leader and those experiencing the change. As you may have experienced and will experience as you reset and reopen, this is not the time to be dismissive of others’ concerns and emotions and shut down discussion. At the same time, an emotionally adaptive leader moves the change or agenda forward.

Dispositional Flexibility

Leaders who display dispositional flexibility operate from a place of optimism grounded in realism and openness. They will acknowledge a bad situation but simultaneously visualize a better future. They are neither blindly positive nor pessimistic and defeatist. Ambiguity is well-tolerated. As leaders, we like to have the right answers, however, I am certain you have realized during this time that being effective, rather than right is what most important.

By being flexible in all of these 3 areas, you will become more adaptable, as you continue to navigate this crisis and, in turn, you will help others to adapt.


The third trait of a leader that is critical is transparency. Simply put, telling team members what you know and what you don’t know will develop trust and a sense of well-being as you work through resetting and recovering from this crisis.

Communicating early and often will help you to maintain credibility.

I recall when I was an HR Leader during 9/11, the consistent response from our employee base was: It was so good to hear my leaders voice, get email messages, have town hall meetings.

Keeping your employees in the loop and inviting them to participate in the change is key to developing trust.

5 Tips for being intentional about practicing empathy-flexibility-transparency:

  1. Put yourself in their shoes. Make time to listen to their stories.
  2. Don’t get too attached to a single plan or strategy. Continue to practice flexibility. Have Plan B (and C) and D at the ready.
  3. Communicate early and often as you move through phases of change. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, and let employees know how and why you made the decisions that you have. Avoid getting defensive or spouting your credentials when you don’t have the answers. People follow leaders not because of titles or letters after their name, they follow leaders in a crisis because they know that you have their best interest at heart. Let people know that you will research the answer or find the answer and get back with them…and follow up with them. Involve them in the ongoing changes. Tell them the truth.
  4. Understand your own reaction to change. You have to be clear about your own emotions and thoughts about changes, so you can be straightforward with others.
  5. Adjust your preferred management style. Spending time with your employees, allowing them to process and share their stories, may not align with your need to drive toward results.

How do you balance the need of showing leadership with the demands on the operation?

Having a Both-And Mindset.

Balancing the need to keep the business running, requires holding the tension between demonstrating appreciation for each team member’s current situation (empathy) and continuing to invite accountability for the work that each team member is still responsible for. This requires a both-and mindset.

For example…if you have an employee who needs to arrange for childcare and get to work at a later time than usual, honoring that new schedule indeed shows flexibility and empathy, however if that same employee is struggling to meet expectations, it may be time for what we call a Yes AND conversation. Yes, we understand the struggle and AND we need for you to follow through with the task at hand.

How can you best serve your organization while your team (and those you serve) are stressed, anxious, and afraid?

Practicing Self-Care. I have found that the very best way any leader can serve the team and those they serve is to practice self-care.

Managing your own vulnerability and stress as you process the changes this pandemic has required of you as a leader is important for you individually and your team. Think about and acknowledge how this change has impacted you.

You may have not had all the answers at the right time; that’s ok. Acknowledge that this has been hard and don’t forget to think about and articulate what you’re proud of. Perhaps you have had to furlough staff, and although it was hard, you know that you handled it with the utmost care. You can be proud of that.

What opportunities might exist that you would want to take advantage of during a time like this?

Getting to Know Yourself. Determine those aspects of your leadership that you will pull forward and leave behind. This requires reflection and perhaps asking yourself a series of questions:

  1. How have I shown up during this time of change?
  2. Have I accepted some of this change as positive? Have I been able to master new technology, vocabulary, operating rules?
  3. Do I see the changes as an opportunity?
  4. Have I successfully adapted plans as necessary?
  5. Have I led the change by example?
  6. Have I taken into account other people’s concerns?
  7. Have I been able to admit that I have made some mistakes, have I learned from them, and have I moved on?
  8. Have I been able to process the hard parts and look for what I am proud of?

Getting to Know Your Team Members on a Different Level. If you have been intentional about demonstrating flexibility during this crisis, you will have gotten to know your team members on a different level. Having what we call a foxhole experience during a crisis can create bonds with team members.

Be mindful of continuing to connect with your employees. For example, if you have been more intentional about practicing empathy, flexibility and transparency, make sure you continue those behaviors once you are back in the building so to speak. Employees will become cynical if they see old patterns of disconnection emerge, now that the crisis is over.

Innovation…continue to pull forward your cognitive flexibility as you engage your team members in continuous process improvement and find new ways to do the work of the work.

What advice do you have for us as we try and balance the demands of the operation, the needs of the team, and the uncertainty of the future of the business?

Practice self-care; give yourself permission to demonstrate some degree of vulnerability.

What lessons have you learned about leadership from previous crises and recessions?

Be honest, communicate often, and timely.

Don’t forget the lessons that you have learned during this crisis. You have most likely made some changes. Continue the journey of innovation. Invite employees to come alongside and give voice to their ideas on how to do work differently.

Tylenol Crisis vs. BP Oil Spill

In 1982, people died from Tylenol poisoning. J&J recalled 93,000 bottles of pills, then CEO Burke had 450,000 telex messages sent to hospitals, doctors and other stakeholders to stop the sale, marketing and advertisement of Tylenol. To ensure the safety of consumers, Burke ordered the removal of 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules all over the United States. Putting millions of dollars at stake, today Tylenol is still on the shelves.

James Burke was one of the most transparent leaders. His advisors told him to stay away from the 60 Minutes interview and he used his instincts and did the interview anyway. He claimed responsibility and ownership and lead the recovery process.

On the other hand, we remember the BP Oil spill in April of 2010 and the CEO Tony Hayward… On May 13 Hayward told reporters that the oil spill was relatively tiny. The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume, he said.

In fact, at that time, with the broken well gushing up to 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf, as much as 1.4 million barrels of crude might have already been lost, making it already worse the than the Exxon Valdez spill.

On May 30, as he was touring the Louisiana coast and apologizing for the spill, Hayward told reporters, I would like my life back, referring to the way the spill had taken over his time.