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Leading in the Storm: A Guiding Light for Crisis Leadership

In the middle of this crisis, how can we turn our organisation’s darkest hour into its finest hour? Here are the important things that we need to get right.


In a Nutshell

  • The crisis can be overwhelming, so leaders need to focus on two key things: people and results

  • Leaders need to deal with their own fear, stress, and anxiety before they can lead others through the storm

  • What, how, and how frequently we communicate are crucial to getting to the other side of the crisis


A sense of overwhelm has gripped leaders around the world. We are all reeling from the sudden blow of the global pandemic and its effects on health, safety, and the economy.

“The coronavirus pandemic is the worst global crisis since World War II,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quoted in the StraitsTimes.

How can we turn our organisation’s darkest hour into our “finest hour,” (to quote Winston Churchill’s famous World War II speech). As leaders, we are indeed battling one of the worst storms we have seen in our lifetimes.

How do we lead, amid the persistent turbulence? How do we steady ourselves through the sudden waves brought about by the pandemic, and the crippling awareness that we can capsize at any moment?

Many things are uncertain at this point. With storms come fog and rain that cloud our vision of the future, and make decision-making challenging.

But here’s what we can—and must—do as leaders in crisis time: get the important things right.

1. Let the right priorities be our north star in the storm

There are two things that matter most: your people and your business results. The welfare of your people and your ability to serve and provide for your customers.

Caring for people is key. They determine the survival of organisations.

Caring for the business is paramount. Caring for the business is caring for your own people and your customers.

These are the core priorities of a business. Many businesses express this same sense of value in different words. McKinsey calls it “Safeguarding lives and livelihoods.”

At ROHEI, we call it Honouring People and Results.

With rough skies ahead, we need to brace ourselves for a long and turbulent journey.

“Two things are reasonably certain: If we do not stop the virus, many people will die. If our attempts to stop the pandemic severely damage our economies, it is hard to envision how there will not be even more suffering ahead,” McKinsey says.

We may not see the horizon, but let our priorities be our north star as we journey forward.

Honour people: lead with empathy

When everything is shaken, we recognise what really matters. At the most basic level, the role of a leader is to protect their people and ensure their health and safety.

“Our first job is to not just lead but to take care of our people, make sure they have what they need. It’s them, not us, that will take our companies to the other side,” Manny Maceda, Worldwide Managing Partner, Bain & Company, says, in a message to CEOs amidst the Covid19 pandemic.

It works the other way too: the people’s role is to protect the business. It’s a self-sustaining principle.

It is people who will see the organisation through the storm. A resilient organisation is made of resilient people.

“They are key. It is in a time of crisis that you need to ask more of people. You need their commitment and energy, both to tackle the crisis and to continue a journey of growth when it’s over,” Manley Hopkinson of McKinsey says, in Applying Past Leadership Lessons to the Coronavirus Pandemic. “I have always been pleasantly surprised how people react and grow in crisis if they feel valued and empowered and if we can ensure, as leaders, that our actions reinforce that reality.”

“When I think about how we’re going to solve the problems ahead of us, the answer is people.” - ERIC SCHMIDT

Empathy, therefore, is critical in crisis time, because people need to be assured, as well as inspired. Leaders with empathy can keep their people secure and motivated when the tide rises and the waves intensify.

Resilient leaders express empathy and compassion for team members—both in their personal and work spheres.

Honour results: lead with resolve and determination

Leaders built for crisis are both nurturing and tough. The toughness will come into even greater play in this season of crisis.

“Leadership is not about passively waiting for the team to deliver. Your role is to hold them to the highest standards of performance,” says Sarah Robb O’Hagan, in Forbes’ Can Great Leaders Be Both Tough and Nurturing?

In times of crisis, people need leaders who are determined and not passive. Courageous leaders who will do what needs to be done to keep the ship and everyone in it afloat.

It is always both, and never one or the other

To both care and challenge is a necessary dichotomy in the reality of leadership.

“We propose that either-or thinking is not sustainable. Only both-and thinking, where leaders actively build the people aspect—the care dimension—whilst actively challenging for results is the key to an engaged and sustainable, high- performance culture,” ROHEI Consultant and Coach Wen-Wei Chiang says, in our e-book, The Way We Lead.

“Resilient leaders are genuinely, sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems. Yet resilient leaders must simultaneously take a hard, rational line to protect financial performance from the invariable softness that accompanies such disruptions,” - Deloitte says in The Heart of Resilient Leadership: Responding to COVID-19.

2. Be the calm in the storm

Navigating through a storm, it is all the more critical for a leader to think clearly and make sound decisions. The stakes are high and a leader cannot afford to be unstable and shaken. At least not for very long.

Leaders must bounce back from the initial shock of the crisis. The leader’s response will set the tone of the organisation’s response and posture in the storm.

Fear, stress, and anxiety need to be dealt with, to protect the leaders—and the organisation’s—problem solving abilities, and capacity for innovation.

Calmness starts with humility and self-awareness

In ROHEI’s Relational Leadership consulting solution, the first responsibility of a leader is to recognise reality. In times of crisis, a leaders’ tendency is to focus on the organisational and societal realities, in line with their responsibility to set the course for the organisation. However, to be effective, especially in turbulent situations, leaders must start with personal reality – self awareness. And that starts with humility.

Humility also comes with leaning on the team and recognising one’s blind spots. Assembling a team that draws on their natural strengths and talents is key. And so is speed—in times of crisis you have to work with what you have and run. - SOPHIA NG, CHIEF, STRATEGY & MARKETING, ROHEI

“The results of our study showed that humility had a significant positive effect on emotional and social competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.” Rosa Hendijan says in The Effect of Humility on Emotional and Social Competencies: The Mediating Role of Judgment.

Put on your own oxygen mask first

When lives and livelihoods are on the line, leaders need to be at their best.

But that doesn’t mean they need to have all the answers.

Leaders, take care of your well-being.

“As they’re confronting this crisis, leaders should be asking themselves: Are you spending enough time taking care of yourself, e.g., by meditating, so that you can be the best version of yourself leading others?” Hubert Joly says in HBR’s A Time to Lead with Purpose

“It is vital that leaders not only demonstrate empathy but open themselves to empathy from others and remain attentive to their own well-being,” McKinsey says in Leadership In a Crisis: Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak and Future Challenges.

“As stress, fatigue, and uncertainty build up during a crisis, leaders might find that their abilities to process information, to remain levelheaded, and to exercise good judgment diminish… Investing time in their well-being will enable leaders to sustain their effectiveness over the weeks and months that a crisis can entail.”

3. Communicate through the storm

Communicate frequently

“People depend upon our statements as leaders and often plan important decisions based on the information we give them,” Jeff Cava says in Leading Through a Crisis: Applying Past Lessons to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Frequent communication builds engagement and fosters a sense of community, and this is what people crave for in uncertain times. Frequent communication diffuses anxiety and helps teams address realities more effectively.

“Better to communicate too much than too little,” Tom Middendorp of McKinsey says.

“To increase feelings of safety, work on communicating with the specific intent of making people feel safe. One way to accomplish this is to acknowledge and neutralize feared results or consequences from the outset,” HBR says, in The Most Important Leadership Competencies According to Leaders Around the World.

Communicate with honesty and courage

The situation is dire and you do not have to put up a so-called “brave face.” Be honest with realities; it is honesty, not false confidence, that builds trust.

“Leaders tend to communicate less when there is great uncertainty for fear of making a mistake,” Glenn San Luis says in The Inquirer’s Getting Things Done During a Crisis. “However, leaders must do the very opposite and very frequently. As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson said, ‘Transparency is job one for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.’”

There is opportunity here for leaders to demonstrate courage when presented with the facts. Leaders can set an example through their response to the facts of the situation.

Open up communication

Communication needs to flow—up, down and sideways. Leaders need to communicate with each other as well, and proactively stimulate collaboration.

“By opening channels for two-way communication, leaders can ensure they are getting real time information from as many people as possible and are providing clear direction based on this information. A leadership team may believe they are communicating consistently and adequately about an emerging situation, not aware that employees further down in the organization are experiencing that communication as infrequent and inadequate.” Gaurav Gupta says in Kotter’s Leading Through Crisis.

Leaders need not, and must not, walk alone. Open communication helps everyone get on board with solving problems—doing what it takes to get to the other side of the crisis.

Let social distancing be limited to physical distancing. – RACHEL ONG, CE, ROHEI

There are opportunities in the storm

Even though immediate concerns are to stay afloat, leaders must keep their eyes and ears open as they navigate the storm. The more they regain their sense of stability in turbulence, the more leaders will be able to see beyond the fog.

“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” — WINSTON CHURCHILL

This is indeed a time like no other, a rare moment in history in which our success in weathering this great war depends on the success of others: of nations, cities, organisations, businesses, and fellow leaders.

Leading at our best, with a team empowered to bring their best work to the table, is a battle won.

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