Leading Through COVID-19: Controlling Your Story During Crisis

leading through crisis

This is part one of our multi-part blog and video series, Leading Teams in Times of Crisis and Immense Change.

We are living in unprecedented times. The world as we know it is rapidly changing. Just a few short weeks ago, none of us would have dreamed we would be where we are today. Fear, anxiety, and helplessness have taken over many of us—and for good reason, as we are navigating unknown waters with the COVID-19 virus.

This blog is not more advice on handwashing, social distancing, or quarantines. I will leave that to the infection control experts. During a time when all of us are feeling out of control, I want to discuss what you as a leader can do during this time to take control and reduce fear, elicit hope, and encourage those around you.

All leadership starts with self-leadership. Leaders must manage our own fears and anxiety and resist stoking fear and anxiety in others. Self-leadership allows us to take control of our own story during these challenging times, as we will be remembered by how we lead during this crisis. Maya Angelou reminds us that people will not remember what you said but how you made them feel. Never is that truer than during a time like this.

When you review a crisis management plan, one of the first things you are advised to do is to control the story, which means control the potential PR and media exposure of the event—hopefully mitigating the long-term impact.

An example that many of us are familiar with is the experience of a health department survey or Joint Commission Accreditation visit. We work hard to prepare for them and then do the best we can to respond to observations and questions when they occur.

During these stressful events, leaders must control our personal responses to the situation, reduce staff anxiety, and be positive role models. So it is with a leader during today’s crisis. Begin with self-leadership by taking control of your story—not in the context of the organization, but in the context of your actions and behavior.

Consider for a minute: How do you want your leadership to be described after this pandemic has passed? The world will change, and your business operations may not be the same going forward. During this time of crisis when you may feel out of control, take control of your behavior and actions. Doing so will drive your story.

Here are three steps you can take to control your story:

Be Mindful

Leaders need to be intentional about their leadership behaviors during this difficult time. Your leadership story depends on it. Take a few minutes each morning to focus on what kind of leader you want to be during the day. Leadership is not about what happens to you, but rather how you choose to respond.

Many things will occur during the day that will test your leadership. Be prepared for them. When you are tempted to respond in haste to an untoward situation or word, step back, take a deep breath, and consider your response. During high-stress times, our bodies shift into a fight-or-flight response, and rather than thinking, we are at risk for saying or doing things we later come to regret.

At the end of the day, briefly meet with your team. Ask them: How did we do today as a team? Congratulate the team on the successes and learn from the failures. You will have both.

Have a Positive Attitude

A positive attitude from leaders is crucial during this crisis. Although we know that it will get better at some point, there are many unknowns. Your attitude will drive your influence.

In the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman describes the role of the leader as one who creates a resonant work environment. Resonant environments have been shown to increase both employee and customer satisfaction, reduce turnover, and improve quality outcomes. Many restraining factors resist positivity: supply shortages, overwork, fear, uncertainty, and frustrated patients and families. But dig deep for positive vibes. If you notice staff morale seeming low, smile more, compliment colleagues, and offer specific appreciation for staff.

Show Yourself Some Love

If you don’t, no one else will. Take care of yourself physically, spiritually, and emotionally. During times of crisis, stress increases our level of cortisol. Excessive levels of cortisol over time can result in chronic disease. Even though we know this too will pass, we don’t know when or how long before it does.

Self-care will go a long way in strengthening you both individually and professionally during this time. Take a break to recharge yourself when you need to. Studies indicate that those who take a 30-minute recharge break during the day improve their critical thinking, have less stress, and increase their overall sense of well-being. During that break, do something that you love to do, such as eating a healthy lunch, walking, listening to your favorite tunes, reading, or praying. Doing so will help you feel a sense of control over yourself even when the rest of the world may feel in chaos.

There is no playbook for leaders to follow during a crisis of this magnitude. When all the world feels out of control, leaders can and must practice self-leadership. By practicing self-leadership and taking control of your actions and behaviors, you will be a role model for others to follow.

You must be intentional about leadership, as it won’t happen if you aren’t mindful about your actions. Take care of yourself and encourage others to take care of themselves as well. Be a cheerleader in the working environment. When all of this has passed (and it will), how do you want to be remembered? What will be your story?