Leadership in times of crisis: four ways to build resilience

An open book sits on a desk

There is no leadership manual for dealing with a once-in-a-century global health emergency—no script to guide what you should say to team members, customers, and stakeholders in your business.

Right now, everyone’s leadership skills are being tested in ways we could have barely imagined a month ago. It’s not just a question of how resilient our organizations are and how quickly they can adapt to lockdowns and restrictions on travel. It’s a challenge to our resilience as human beings.

When Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, tweeted the story in recent days of how his business was responding to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) emergency, he prefaced his comments with a simple introductory note: “I’m a human. I worry about my family and am deeply concerned about the millions whose jobs and health are at risk.” It was the right starting note.

I’ve always believed that great leadership is forged in the crucible of adversity, but great leaders are those who respond with empathy and vulnerability even when making the toughest decisions. We all need reserves of determination and positivity at precisely the moments those qualities are stretched thin. Where do those reserves come from? In my book, Done Right, I explored a number of ways to build resilience. Here are four that seem relevant today:

Learning resilience #1: Lean towards the obstacles.

You need to see yourself on the other side of this crisis. I learned this lesson in resilience in the spring of 2003 when I was leading the sales team at BMC Software in Houston. Typically, almost 40% of what we sold during the entire year was closed in the last quarter of the financial year—and we’d expect to close almost 80% of that in the last two weeks of the month.

With 11 days to go, the market vanished...thanks to geopolitics. The American-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq began on March 20th prompting every major company and prospective client to shut down decision-making. On the morning of April 1st, I found a handwritten note on my desk from my mentor and one of the company’s vice presidents, Joseph “Chip” Nemesi. Chip wrote:

“I stopped by this morning, but you were in the gym. Since you looked like you had just watched your puppy get run over last night, I wanted to check in on you this AM. However, knowing you as well as I do, I know you have moved on to a new year, and are walking with confidence and enthusiasm this morning. Your team will expect you to be mad and lack some confidence and conviction after a rough close, and as usual I know you will surprise them, and they will draw strength from your example.”

Chip said he knew that I’d never let “two or three accounts, a war, and an IT slump” affect my confidence or ability to lead. I’ve kept his note for 15 years. Chip wrote things I did not yet feel. He described a course of action I had not yet imagined. What did I learn from the experience? I know that on the other side of adversity is another chance to win again.

Learning resilience #2: Own your resilience.

There are techniques leaders can use to build their own resilience—and tips they can pass on to their team about dealing with adversity. Meet one of the most remarkable people I know, Debra Searle. She is a successful entrepreneur, author, and television presenter—and she’s been twice-honored by the Queen for her achievements in her native UK and beyond. She has a mental toolkit that served her well through one of the toughest tests imaginable: rowing across 3,000 miles of ocean by herself in a boat built for two.

Debra’s tips range from “running the movie”— visualize yourself confronting and overcoming the challenging times ahead—to choosing your attitude every day. “This is the one thing I had a choice about,” Debra says. “Every day I made an attitude choice: I said it out loud. It had to be a positive attitude. Negative attitudes were banned on the boat,” Debra says. You can hear Debra tell her story and share her tips in her TEDx talk on “Dealing with changes we would never choose.

Learning resilience #3: Keep communicating.

Keep talking. Keep listening. We’ve been communicating openly with my team on multiple channels as the Coronavirus crisis has developed and after the decision to ask staff to work remotely. There are virtual meetings, recorded sessions, emails, and I’ve opened my schedule to anyone in the business to book time for a conversation. And those conversations have ranged from the current crisis, to our customer response, to just having a laugh about our home office hijinx.

The most important message that our SVP of People and Culture Laura Butler shared was about the “new normal” for the entire Workfront team. For some, the new normal might look like two working adults competing for internet bandwidth at home taking turns to respond to the cries of a toddler or two. For others, it might be taking care of at-risk parents or relatives. But whatever the new normal is for each colleague, there’s one thing they all needed to know from me: prioritize your family and your wellbeing. If anything has to give in life right now, let it be work.

Learning resilience #4: When it’s all done, reflect and learn.

When this crisis abates—and it will in time—the temptation is for leaders to rush ahead without a backward glance. But part of resilience is learning lessons. Former US Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis describes this as part of the “Corporate Battle Rhythm”—a full cycle of planning, briefing, execution and debriefing. According to Mark:

“After a mission, we come together immediately in a very hallowed environment where there’s no rank, no blame, no privilege, no seniority, and we sit down and talk unemotionally about the successes and failures of the mission. It’s important to capture both. The successes because we want to continue to do things that are working and the failures because we can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. If we repeat mistakes in my world it has catastrophic results.”

And the outcome of a SEAL teams debrief isn’t just kept within the mission squad. The lessons are open to every SEAL, from the top to bottom rank. “I’m accelerating everyone’s experience, whether they’re going out and doing operations or not,” says Mark. Take the time to reflect and hold a debrief; no two crises are the same, but there will be lessons to learn from your organization’s response to Covid-19 for sure.

Lead as though your children are watching.

In essence, times of crisis challenges leaders to be the best versions of themselves. I’m reminded of an idea that Sean Pederson of Trek Bicycles came up with a few years ago: “Lead as though your children are watching.” It’s great advice. And right now, if you’re reading this while you’re working at home, they probably are.