3 Important Lessons On Crisis Management From The COVID-19 Pandemic

There’s little question that our world has never experienced a global crisis like that of the current COVID-19 pandemic. From the financial fallout seen on various stock markets as well as industries directly impacted by this pandemic, to various countries, including here in Canada, closing their borders to non-citizens in an attempt to contain the spread of this virus, we are all collectively seeing and experiencing a reality many of us never imagined happening.

Although this event will undoubtedly create ripples that will impact most of us for months and even years to come, it also provides a unique opportunity for leaders to assess and review how they approach crisis management within their organization.

Indeed, this crisis demands not only a response from political leaders, but from leaders in every industry and size of business, whether they’re the CEO of a multinational organization or a local business owner in your neighbourhood.

Consequently, we’ve seen a wide range of responses to this global crisis, from leaders who clearly understand what needs to be done in such critical moments, to those who continue to fumble the ball pivoting almost daily on their messaging, and worse, those whose clear lack of leadership has only served to exacerbate the situation instead of helping those they have the responsibility to lead.

One of the best responses to date to the COVID-19 pandemic has come from an unlikely source. On Sunday night, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in Canada. After seeing the message he posted on Twitter to his constituents, it became clear why this Mayor from one of Alberta’s main cities has garnered the interest and attention of our whole country:

When we look back, let’s hope the narrative is that we overreacted. These are tough decisions. For me personally, it was heartbreaking to close the rec centres and libraries. But ultimately, these good habits keep us collectively safe.

We’ll continue to update you as we take further actions. In the meantime, please watch AHS [Alberta Health Services] and Dr. Hinshaw for updates on our healthcare system. Thank you for doing your part. We’ll get through this together.

When I read Mayor Nenshi’s message, I was impressed because in just 74 words, he illustrated 3 important lessons for leaders everywhere on not just how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, but how they can better address any crisis through their leadership.

1. Start off by offering words of reassurance

When things go wrong, whether it’s limited to within your office walls or as with this current pandemic, stretches around the world, as a leader it’s important that you get in front of those you serve – both your employees and your customers – and offer them reassurance that you’re not only aware of the problem, but that you’re working with others to find appropriate measures to address the situation.

This absolutely needs to be your first step. The reason why goes to understanding how our brain processes information. We’re all familiar with the brain’s fight or flight response to stress. But what we also need to understand is how our brain processes information.

Specifically, our brain separates the information it gets from our various senses as being either a reward or a threat. Now on the surface, this seems pretty straightforward. However, our brain has developed this shortcut that when it encounters something unknown or unfamiliar, it automatically labels it as a threat.

That’s why the first thing you need to do is reassure those you lead that we’re going to figure this out, we’ll get through this, that we’ll prevail in the end. It might sound trite, but this kind of messaging will help offset our brain’s tendency to see this as a threat by addressing it head-on.

To see this in action, look at Mayor Nenshi’s COVID-19 response. The first thing he says is that when we look back on this pandemic, the hope is we can say we did more than what was necessary to combat the virus. So as much as he’s saying these measures are necessary today, he’s also giving that reassurance that we’ll be in a stronger position to overcome a similar crisis in the future.

2. Specify what measures you’re going to take

Once you’ve provided reassurance to your employees and your customers, you need to back this up with a clear guidance on what measures you’ll put into place to both prevent the situation from getting worse and once under control, what you’ll do to resolve it.

Interestingly, here’s where most political leaders have stumbled and where many business leaders have succeeded. Over the last several days, I’ve received emails from various companies with a message from the CEO detailing not only what they’re doing to help limit the potential exposure to COVID-19 for both their employees and customers, but what they’re doing to help address potential issues customers are facing due to various restrictions and closures.

And this is exactly the kind of blueprint you need to provide those you serve with. Again, if you look at the various reports about people panic buying toilet paper and other products, many experts point out how what’s behind this behaviour is not just fear, but feeling a lack of control.

Your employees and your customers are no different, which is why a key part of your crisis management toolkit has to include the ability to quickly develop a new road map that will help people get a clear understanding of what you’re going to do to lessen the fallout and get back some measure of control.

Again, Mayor Nenshi’s message above demonstrates this step in action in how he not only advises his constituents about the closure of various public facilities, but encourages them to access various healthcare outlets to get information on what next steps they’ll need to take to lessen the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Providing this level of clarity and follow-through – that this isn’t a one and done update, but an on-going conversation – will grow trust levels in your leadership, which is critical to keeping people calm and rational, and not acting out of fear of the unknown.

3. Help people see past today and towards the long view

It’s the nature of leadership that leaders more than anyone else tend to view things in the context of the long term. But the reality is for everyone else, it’s more about the here and now. For example, in the case of COVID-19, while it’s reasonable to ask people to self-isolate themselves if they’ve been potentially exposed to the virus, this doesn’t take into consideration what the financial costs will be for that person not just today, but in the months ahead as their finances take a hit from not being able to work.

That’s why after providing that reassurance that we’re going to get through this and specifying measures that demonstrate how we’re going to achieve that, you need to remind those under your care of the future you originally described to them that they’d achieve under your leadership.

You need to be honest with your employees that yes, the current crisis will cause both delays and unforeseen costs to your organization’s productivity and bottom line. But you need to remind them of that grand vision or long term goal you’ve collectively set out to achieve. You need to instill that sense of hope that because we’re collaborating to find a way through this crisis, we will ultimately prevail.

At present, all we see and hear about COVID-19 naturally stokes fear and uncertainty. And frankly what we need to hear more of is about our collective resilience. Of our drive to overcome any obstacle, and especially our care and concern for others, which is why we’re taking the measures we are – not just for ourselves, but for our greater community.

Communicating that message – as Mayor Nenshi did at the end by pointing out “we’ll get through this together” is an important reminder that only by working together can we ultimately overcome this crisis and find our way back.

As with any major crisis, it’s hard to anticipate or know concretely when things will get resolved or how, especially when dealing with a crisis on a global scale as we are right now with the COVID-19 virus.

As such, it should be abundantly clear to leaders – both in the public and private sectors –that when a crisis hits, your every word and your every action will be under even greater scrutiny, as it should be. After all, the ability of an organization, a city, a province/state, or country to overcome a crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic rests squarely on your shoulders.

The responsibility is most definitely yours to not only address, but to find a suitable and appropriate way to resolve the crisis in a way that doesn’t inflame or provoke more issues or problems either now or in the future.

That’s why the fundamental key to addressing a crisis is for leaders to not only be honest about the situation and what you’re going to do about it, but that you do so with clarity, humility and heart so as to remind people we’re in this together [Share on Twitter].


Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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