Four Practices for Leaders in Times of Crisis

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When in a crisis, leaders are at risk of either under-reacting or over-reacting.

When under-reacting, we are showing minimal empathy, are overly optimistic and downplay the situation.

When over-reacting, we are experiencing constant high threat, catastrophizing, and creating panic in others.

The right mindset is that of being “adaptive”, best described by The Stockdale Paradox, which Jim Collins referenced in his seminal work, Good to Great, arguably one of the most important books on leadership and business ever written.  The Stockdale Paradox is named after James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war. The main gist of the idea is that we need to balance realism with optimism.  In short, we need to have an unshakable belief in eventual success, combined with a deep acceptance of the harsh current reality.

The main qualities we exhibit when we are coming from an adaptive mindset is the ability to maintain calm and to help others stay calm whilst cultivating an adaptive mindset themselves.

The model for developing this mindset is one that I learned at the Neuro-leadership Institute.  It’s entirely science based and leverages decades of research into the way our brains work, specifically in the context of leadership and business.

To cultivate an adaptive mindset, pay attention to these four macro practices.  Each one deserves its own white paper and I would be happy to discuss with you individually if you’re interested.


  1.  Take care of yourself.

No, really.  Take care of yourself like you never have in the past.  This moment is quickly showing itself to be a marathon with a number of sprints and a relay race or two included.  Know and believe that leaders always decide the weather. If you are not operating optimally, you simply cannot expect your team to do so.

Your teams need to know that they can count on you.  That you’re present, calm, resourceful and healthy.

Focus on 3 things only, but deliver on all 3 with no exceptions.  

  1. Sleep no less than 8 hours.  This is critical, because sleep debt can only be tolerated for a short time, and we don’t know how long this crisis will continue.

  2. Stay hydrated.

  3. Get some form of exercise, even if it’s just a 10 minute walk, every single day.

Over and above these three actions, each one of us knows what we need to fill our tank.  Make time for that activity and do not let yourself get to empty.

2.  Understand how the brain works and use that knowledge to lead yourself and your teams.

A great model that NLI offers is SCARF, and here’s a brief explanation.

The SCARF Model


Basically, our brain can be in one of two modes.

1.  Away mode - when we experience some kind of physical, emotional, or psychological threat

2.  Toward mode - when we experience a perceived or actual reward.

When we are in Away mode (experiencing threat, which we are experiencing at epic levels right now), 4 very important functions are highly impacted:

  Perception - Our field of view narrows and we no longer see all the options available to us. (Even our field of vision narrows under stress and that’s why we can easily get into a car accident, because we literally lose our peripheral vision).

 Cognition - Our working memory is impacted (this is why our kids will suddenly forget everything and go blank during a final)

 Creativity - Our insights become hard to come by.

  Collaboration - Working with others becomes difficult if not impossible.

5 things - when threatened - take us into Away mode.  Keep these in mind with the acronym SCARF.

Status - How do I stack up against the others in this room, group, etc…..  Am I less than or better than others?

Certainty - The ability to predict outcomes

Autonomy - Sense of Control

Relatedness - Am I in the group or out of the group?

Fairness - Perception of fair exchange

In short, for our brains to work optimally, we need to be in the towards mode, with all 5 needs: status, certainty,  autonomy, relatedness and fairness in an overall state of satisfaction and alignment.

Understandably, at this moment, every one of those needs is highly disrupted.  Certainty has disappeared almost entirely. For many, their professional status is at high risk or already diminished. Autonomy is disrupted and relatedness and social support is substantially reduced, just when we need it the most. Lastly, fairness is a challenge when we don’t have visibility into decision making and as many are losing their jobs.

In short our brains and that of those we lead is going haywire and we need to institute some “SCARF Buffers”.

Think of each of these 5 brain needs and be creative about putting in buffers to reduce the pain that is being experienced.

For example, to buffer for:

  •  Certainty

Regulate your media intake.  1-2 check-in with the news a day, and absolutely no more than 3.

Literally schedule (in your calendar) activities that offset your stress.

Build a new work from home schedule, and stick to it.

Give team members small but true bits of information, knowing that under these circumstances, any information at all is very helpful.

When in crisis mode, no news is not good news, and uncertainty can be worse than a known bad.

  • Autonomy

Identify all the things you can control in this moment, and build a list.

Reappraise situations by using humor.  It’s no surprise meme culture has gone to the next level during this crisis.

Take steps to control your home environment.

  • Status

Make sure every single one of your people is included in some kind of touch base everyday.  It doesn’t have to be with you, but you are responsible for ensuring that the systems are in place to make this happen.

If you are confident that someone’s position in the company is secure post crisis, let them know.  If someone’s position is at risk, don’t let them get blind-sighted.

  • Relatedness

Create daily connections with your team members, as well as with those you care about.  Become an expert at using platforms like Zoom, Skype and Facetime. Face to face connections are critical at this time, but the phone can also be an intimate means of connection if you slow down enough to be truly present.

Ask people what would be most helpful to them at this time, knowing that all people are not experiencing this moment in the same way.  There is a broad spectrum of unique challenges folks are facing, and you won’t know what they are until you ask.

  • Fairness

This need was first challenged when many didn’t understand why some people are working from home and others from the office.  But now that almost everyone except for essential workers are having to work from home, unfortunately, fairness is being triggered because people are being laid off.  One way to buffer the high pain of this trigger is to walk them through procedures, so they understand why the decision was made. As much as possible, boost their brain’s reward system by offering an “unexpected reward”.  Something like, health insurance for an additional month will go a very long way in these kinds of situations.


3.   Look after your people.

One word:  EMPATHY, empathy, empathy.  Clearly, I can’t stress the value of empathy enough in this moment.

Good leadership is absolutely critical in times of crisis, and a quality that all excellent leaders share is they do whatever it takes to make their people feel cared for.  People first have to know you care and that they are being heard, before you move to action.

Once you have done the foundational work of supporting your team to feel cared for and heard, you can take the following steps:

Focus people on shared goals through regular video meetings.  

Connect more socially than you ever thought you would.

Provide unexpected autonomy where you can, such as when, where and how to work.

Focus people on their specific work.

Most importantly, remember this is not a time for rules, but rather for principles.  Look at each person and their unique challenges and let principles be your decision making north star.

4.  Deliver the essentials.

Overcome your natural and well developed habit of driving for results.  This is, of course, our natural tendency as leaders. Quarterly goals are hilarious at this moment.  You should be setting daily and weekly goals - and at absolute most, 30 day goals.

Decide and re-decide what you want to accomplish as a team right now.

Rally people around shared short term goals.

Ruthlessly prioritize.  If you were working on 12 objectives before the crisis, cut it down to 2-3 goals.

Now is the time for clarity, not certainty.

Clarity on what great means at this moment.  What about acceptable?

Give the team clarity on your operating principles.

Most importantly, shift from prediction to planning.  Predicting what’s going to happen, given these circumstances, is impossible and unhelpful.  Focus your teams on scenario planning instead.  At any given time, you should have 3 different possible scenarios that are likely to happen.  

Slow down and take a great deal of time to build out each scenario in as much detail as possible.  Truly imagine what life and business would be like under each scenario, and build all the various implications.  This activity demands a high cognitive load, so make sure you separate the work into blocks with lots of breaks and over a number of days.

At this time, plans are useless, but planning is priceless.

I hope you find this framework and tips helpful in navigating these unprecedented times.  My clients are experimenting with these principles at work, at home, and training their managers to do the same with their respective teams.  The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I look forward to receiving yours.


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