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How to lead when the world is on fire

September 2, 2019 - 11 min read

How to Lead When the World is On Fire

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The 9 commandments of leading through crisis

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor Frankl

We’ll all encounter a devastating event at some point in our lives. While we can’t control our external environment, we can build skills that will help us respond. As a leader at any level within an organization, you will be in a position to lead others through crises of varying degrees, and as a result, in a position to have a positive impact. Although such events don’t define you, they do create the context in which you respond, and thus become part of your leadership story. Now more than ever, leaders need to be equipped with the skills to lead through crisis and times of stress.

While we can’t control our external environment, we can build skills that will help us respond.Click To Tweet
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve noticed that stress, sadness, and fear seem heightened. This isn’t surprising given tragic current events we see on the news with unfortunate frequency. My heart goes out to all those directly impacted, and also to those indirectly impacted. Research shows that media coverage of a traumatic event can lead to widespread acute stress, even for those not directly impacted. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™: The State of Our Nation survey results recently revealed that “nearly 6 in 10 adults (59%) report that the current social divisiveness causes them stress.” To add to this, America faces a crisis of disconnection. The fact that researchers note rising levels of loneliness is alarming given that we need to lean on each other now more than ever.
We need leaders who can inspire resilience and connection amidst difficulty, and do it with compassion. Yet, understandably, many struggle with uncertainty of response. A common sentiment I hear is, “I want to help, I just don’t know how.” I call this feeling of helplessness, “altruism without an outlet.” The intentions are positive, but the direction unclear.
My experience as a psychotherapist, leadership coach, and crisis counselor has given me countless opportunities to help individuals navigate the difficult terrain of leading and living through crisis. Through this work, I’ve learned that productive, compassionate responses to difficult times can sometimes arise almost as a spontaneous reflex or choiceless action that in the moment just feels like “the right thing to do.” Yet, it’s also clear that “crisis response” skills that set leaders apart can be cultivated.
Though never easy, simple actions like the ones below can go a long way when it comes to supporting the social and emotional well-being of your people in difficult times.

The 9 commandments of leading through crisis

When leading through crisis, clarity is critical. Click To Tweet


While we hope for the best, it’s wise to invest in the resilience and overall psychological capacity of your people. This will not only benefit your employees in the event of a crisis, evidence shows that it will also lead to improved performance; a win-win. The following four strategies give more detail regarding how to prepare.

Promote a sense of purpose

Purpose is the feeling that your work is meaningful and contributes to a mission that goes beyond yourself. It’s also one of the four characteristics that researcher and professor Angela Duckworth sees in individuals who are high in Grit. To support a strong sense of purpose in your team, the best action is to make sure your actions as an organization truly do align with a larger, worthwhile mission. Second, provide opportunities for your team members to connect with a purpose beyond the self in a way that can be self-directed, and based on intrinsic motivation. Paid volunteer days are a great way to support such opportunities in a non-prescriptive way. To take it a step further, consider promoting space for yourself and employees to engage in what we call inner work.

Promote connection

In her popular TED talk, researcher Kelly McGonigal demonstrates that social connection is quite literally a salve against the ill effects of stress. Promote connection by leading by example when it comes to building meaningful professional connection with teammates. Ways to do this include: remembering important details of team members’ lives such as names of kids and pets, asking open-ended questions about their weekend, or genuinely sharing in their success or joy. This contributes to a foundation of Psychological Safety, making it more likely employees can comfortably lean on you and each other during a crisis.

Provide support

Don’t wait until an emotionally charged disaster strikes. Just like you have insurance to cover financial risk, make sure your team has existing external support in place, and that such support is high quality and accessible. Examples include easy access to ongoing therapy and coaching.


It sounds almost overly simplistic, but should your community be impacted by tragedy, acknowledge the situation to your team. When politicians fail to respond swiftly to large scale disasters, it can hurt the public’s confidence for years to come. Although corporate leadership is not expected to be directly responsible in the aftermath of an external disaster, a rapid acknowledgement sends a message that you care about more than the bottom line.

  • Should a large or individual scale tragedy occur, send a clear and supportive message as soon as possible. Find out who was impacted and how, and make sure they know you are thinking about them and are willing to help.

Ask questions

While we can be experts in our field, individuals are experts in themselves.

As we’ve said before, great leaders don’t need to know exactly what to do in uncertain times. Human-centered psychologists stand by the fact that while we can be experts in our field, individuals are experts in themselves. If you’re looking to help the situation, communicate that you welcome input from your team, not that you have all the answers.

Be clear

When leading through crisis, clarity is critical. Be specific and decisive. When the system is already in overdrive, it’s difficult to process nuance and complexity. If, for instance, you know someone on your team (or your entire team) is impacted by a large or small scale crisis, don’t assume they will be able to read your mind regarding any intention to support. Be crystal clear about the type of support you can offer and the choices they have.

Support positive citizenship

It’s heartening to see when crisis brings out the best in people. For instance, evidence shows that acute stress can enhance cooperation, social connection, and compassion. Being able to take meaningful action in service of others has been shown to help people manage their own response to traumatic events, and can even contribute to what is known as post-traumatic growth, a phenomenon wherein a traumatic event, as painful as it may be, is also a catalyst for living a life of greater meaning, and personal development.

Don’t forget about yourself

In order to be the best leader you can be, it’s important that you also get the support you need when facing adversity. Compassion includes the self.

When tragedy strikes, I offer the following quote from Fred ‘Mister’ Rogers:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.

Making sure that both you and your people have the internal and external space to demonstrate compassion through action is one of the best ways to have a positive impact as a leader in crisis.

Original art by Theo Payne.

Published September 2, 2019

Sarah Greenberg, M.Ed, MA, MFT, BCC

Director of Clinical Design & Partnerships, BetterUp

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