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Opinion

[PULSE] The 7 words leaders must say in a crisis

Plus, 3 critical mistakes leaders must avoid

I heard something really smart today. It was no surprise to me because it came from my good friend Rene Rodriguez. I’m always learning from Rene.

He posted a video to LinkedIn this week. In it, he pointed out what should be obvious to us, and probably would be during “normal” times. He said, “If you are a leader, at the end of this period you are going to be judged.”

He’s absolutely right! 

Any manager can claim to be a leader during good times. But in a crisis, management becomes difficult or ineffective and managers can lose their leadership status. Those who succeed understand that leadership is the antidote to crisis.

Rick Grant,
Guest Author

People know this deep inside and when things get tough their attention naturally turns to those who are in leadership positions. What these leaders do in a crisis, like the one we’re in now, is what will be remembered.

Rene offers some great information and I urge you to check out Rene’s video, especially if you’re leading a company, organization or family.

But he also asked a question that bounced over into my alley. Rene asked, “What is the right thing for a leader to say?”

Messages that matter in difficult times

The word crisis has been defined as a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger. There is plenty to worry about there, but it gets worse. A crisis often brings with it secondary problems that spring from uncertainty and its constant companion, fear.

What a leader says during this time has the potential to reduce uncertainty and alleviate fear, leaving teams better equipped to respond to the primary difficulty. But it requires the leader to say the right thing. There is risk in saying the wrong thing, of course, but it’s tiny in comparison to the risk involved in saying nothing at all.

The seven best words any leader can say in a time of crisis are: 

“Here’s what we are going to do.”

That’s what people want to hear. No one wants to feel helpless. They want clarity, direction and a plan. In a crisis, they’ll follow anyone who offers it to them.

Of course, you’ll have to follow those words with the list of things that makes sense for your organization to do right now. A real leader already knows what those things are or has surrounded herself with great people who can help her formulate that plan.

Every leader should be preparing this short message now, if they haven’t already done so. If someone in a leadership position had done that for Americans a week ago, we’d still be able to buy toilet paper in a store instead of an underground parking structure under the cover of night.

Three critical mistakes leaders must avoid

To help mitigate the ever-present risk that you will say something slightly off target, here are some critical errors to avoid.

1. Don’t be silent:

Whether you like it or not, people are looking to you right now. If you say nothing, they will immediately become more fearful and that’s not productive. Be ready with your statement then deliver it early and often.

2. Don’t just quote some other authority:

Sending out messages that have been cut and pasted from some other authority – even one as good as the Center for Disease Control in a health crisis – is not helpful. You’d be better served by just getting out of the middle, but that won’t make your own people less fearful.

The only one who can provide a plan for your organization is its leader. If you’re the leader, that means it falls to you to tell your people, in no uncertain terms, what you will all be doing during this crisis.

3. Don’t send information without insight:

If you’re in a bona fide crisis, your people already know the basics. They understand the threat (or some magnified version of it). They know what everyone else is telling people to do and so they are now washing their hands. They don’t need a complex communication that tells them what they already know but offers them no insight into what it all means and no clear path forward.

Brian Rieger probably wrote the best post on this and put the article up on LinkedIn this week.

Insight has been defined as the ability to gain a deep intuitive understanding of a thing. A person with insight knows what the situation means and what must be done. That is the leader’s role. So, give them the plan. Telling them you are monitoring the situation but you have no plan is basically telling them to panic. Information with instructions leads to a manageable situation.

If you avoid these three mistakes, then literally anything else you say as long as it follows the seven critical words above will serve you and your organization well. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive plan. It doesn’t need to be a five-year plan. It just needs to illuminate the path forward from here. That’s leadership.

If you’re a leader, you should bear this all in mind. And if you were not a leader before this crisis hit but you now find people looking to you, congratulations, you’re a leader. Get busy.

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