Leadership, Communication and Setting the Tone During a Crisis

by Frank L. Williams

During a crisis, people expect leaders to lead. Whether you are a business owner, association director, elected official or Rotary president, those under your leadership will look to you for direction and hope during a crisis. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, people are craving security and stability during a crisis that threatens to undermine both. You must lead with clarity and purpose and set the tone for your organization. This begins with having a clear, accurate understanding of the communication environment in which you are operating.

General Colin Powell said, “As a leader you set the tone for your entire team.” I’ll take this a step further: “As a leader, your communication sets the tone for your entire organization.” People are watching you if you’re in a leadership role, and every word, action, deed and facial expression has a ripple effect.

Let’s consider how your communication as a leader sets the tone for your organization:

  • Mindset: If your words and actions focus on the negative, those under your leadership will likely have a negative outlook, and pessimism can be every bit as contagious as COVID-19. If you want to inspire hope and a positive focus, you must accentuate the positive. This doesn’t mean sweeping negative realities under the rug, but it does mean you cannot allow them to dominate your thoughts and communication.
  • Responding vs. Reacting: During a crisis, a leader might as well be a dartboard. When people are frustrated, scared or angry, they often direct those emotions as people who hold leadership roles (ask any elected official who is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic). If you react to such a dart by blowing a gasket and tearing into someone under your leadership, the shadows of that outburst will cloud the relationship moving forward. They will remember the outburst, not the crisis context in which it happened. Fear of how you will respond is a powerful demotivator.
  • Authenticity: As Zig Ziglar said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It is always important for those in leadership roles to be authentic – especially during a crisis. This doesn’t mean unloading all of your personal issues on those under your leadership; it simply means understanding their situation, being real, and showing your human side. Additionally, if you’ve had a moment of weakness that resulted in an outburst toward someone under your leadership, it means taking the initiative to sincerely apologize to them. No one expects you to be perfect, so don’t try to prove that you are.
  • Transparency: During a crisis, people have a natural tendency to think those in leadership roles are either hiding something or withholding key information. Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of credibility. Being transparent about how the crisis is affecting your organization – and how it could affect those you lead – is critical, even if the news you are sharing is challenging.
  • Show the Way: If you expect those under your leadership to conduct themselves in a certain way, you must lead by example. If you expect them to be judicious about what they post and share on social media, you shouldn’t post unverified information from questionable websites. If you want them to use this time to strengthen their skills, you should do the same.

As a leader, you set the tone for your organization. Be judicious about whether or not to engage in a public dialogue on an issue; not every battle is worth fighting. Be conscious of the words you choose and how they might impact the mindset of those under your leadership. Be intentional about responding to frustrating comments and attacks rather than spewing out knee-jerk reactions. Be yourself; don’t try to put up a front of artificial toughness. Be honest and transparent. Be patient, kind and understanding in communicating with others. Demonstrate the behavior you expect. Finally, be positive. As Paul Harvey said, “I’ve never seen a monument erected to a pessimist.”

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Frank L. Williams

Frank is the founder and president of Pioneer Strategies.