What We Look for from Leaders During Crisis

 What We Look for from Leaders During Crisis

I always wondered if my generation would ever have a mega event that challenged us in a way that past ones have other generations.  

Thankfully, we have missed out on so many of the major events that our relatives battled in their lifetimes, including the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and many other generational challenges.  

In fact, since I was born in the summer of 1981, outside of a few economic dips and most certainly 9/11, we’ve been fortunate to grow up and start careers, families, and businesses amid the best economic conditions ever. 

It’s amazing how much the world can change in just a few short weeks. In the summer of 2020, we find ourselves at a time when the music has stopped—and we’re now in the middle of the kind of generational challenge I always wondered if we’d face.  

Maybe you’re experiencing this too as we continue to come to grips with how the world has changed since the early spring. It’s almost hard to describe the feelings, because there are so many them. Certainly it begins with sadness and sorrow for those who have lost loved ones around the world, and with gratitude for healthcare professionals and first responders who are on the frontlines, helping our neighbors around the world. There’s also anxiety, stress, and overwhelm at the enormity of the situation and at the many new things we’re having to balance with schools closed, businesses to run, and many other responsibilities. I know you’re in the same boat.  

But while it may be a new world, there are many lessons we can learn from how previous generations powered through such challenges. I think the most important lesson is that leadership’s finest hour always happens when the music stops.  

So, yes, in this moment, leadership matters more than ever. What’s unique about this situation is how many different areas in your life require you to step up as a leader in a way you may never have had to before.  It begins at home, extends to the office, and perhaps continues to church and other areas where people rely on you or need your support.  

One thing that is really clear to me is that in times like these, we tend to gravitate toward people—not institutions, corporations, government agencies, or organizations but individual leaders.  

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, it brought devastation on a level we hadn’t seen here in Texas in a long time. Those who wanted to support their neighbors gravitated primarily not toward institutions but instead toward individual leaders who stepped up to lead. J. J. Watt raised $37 million via a GoFundMe page, blowing past the original goal of $200,000, and helped rebuild 1,183 homes around Houston. Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale opened his stores around the city to give his neighbors who were flooded out of their homes a place to sleep. These and others led their city through the catastrophe and inspired many to lead in smaller but similar ways.  

Even prior to this pandemic, trust was eroding at significant levels for institutions of almost every variety, from the government to companies and even universities. It’s not that these institutions aren’t helping—in fact, many have gone above and beyond like never before—it’s just that we want to hear not from a generic institution, but someone we trust (hello, Dr. Anthony Fauci).  

In this moment, here’s what your constituents are looking for: 

  1. Vision for how to get through the challenge   
  1. Clear, consistent, confident communication 

#1 is really dependent on what you are leading, be it a company, state, government, organization, family, church, peer group, etc. Not every vision, of course, proves to be the right one, but in times of crisis, a plan you can execute on quickly is much better than waiting for a perfect solution—just ask J. J. Watt.  

#2 is the one I want to dig in on a bit, because I want to push you to get out of your comfort zone to do this at scale. After all, if you have a vision but don’t communicate effectively, you can’t lead in a way that helps others.  

Over the past several months of this crisis, there have been many politicians who have leaned heavily on #2 as a way to help their constituents during this challenging time. 

My favorite example is Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, who in early March started a daily briefing on Facebook Live to update Kentucky residents on the state’s response to the pandemic. Several weeks later, his daily briefing has become must-watch content for not only his citizens but many others who tune from around the country to hear his daily update. People have even created “Beers with Beshear” T-shirts to memorialize the slang name many have given to it. He could have done what other governors did and communicate through official channels only (and sporadically at that), but he recognized the responsibility he had to get out of his comfort zone. And, as you might guess, his approval ratings across both parties are through the roof. 

We find ourselves in a time where we are all having to figure out things we’ve never done before. (How do I homeschool my three kids and do my job? How do I navigate social as we continue to social distance? How the hell does Zoom work?) The constituents of your business are no exception. They need to hear from you now more than ever. Your team is seeking a vision they can execute on. Your clients are looking for you to get creative with ways to over-deliver on value for them. Your broader audience is looking for your insight on how they can navigate their way through this crisis.  

The good news is that we’re also in an environment where more grace is being given than ever before because we’re all in the same boat. My kids are screaming in the background of our call just like yours are.  

We’re all learning as we go—but what I know for a fact is that your audience needs to hear from you in ways they haven’t before. This might be starting weekly Facebook Live or virtual office hours on Zoom to answer questions, or finally launching that podcast.  

I think this can be our finest hour in so many ways, but we have to seize the moment and take action. I’m less concerned with the specific format of how you communicate and lead and much more interested in pushing you to step around your business or institutional brand to lead those who need it most. In doing so, you’ll not only make an impact; you’ll position your brand (and your company or institution’s as well) in a much different light. 

Rusty Shelton

He is the Founder & CEO of Zilker Media, the country’s premier agency for authors, thought leaders and brands who want to build a platform and make an impact in the new media landscape. He is the co-author (alongside Adam Witty) of Authority Marketing: How to Leverage 7 Pillars of Thought Leadership to Make Competition Irrelevant (ForbesBooks, 2018) and co-author (alongside Barbara Cave Henricks) of Mastering the New Media Landscape: Embrace the Micromedia Mindset (Berrett-Koehler, 2016), which debuted at #2 on the Austin American-Statesman bestseller list and is endorsed by David Meerman Scott, Tom Rath, Sally Hogshead and many others.

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