“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Could it get any more challenging right now? Not only are we in the midst of a pandemic with tremendous uncertainty about health and safety issues for employees, but we are also dealing with major concerns over systemic racism in our society. And things keep changing on a daily basis. For employees, it is critical that they have leaders who display the right behaviors and characteristics during a crisis. 

There’s no question that leaders are under the microscope now more than ever during these crisis situations. Thus, leaders need to make the right types of decisions and display the right behaviors. As Ken Chenault, former Chairman & CEO of American Express noted “Leadership reputations are made or lost during times of crisis”. 

I believe some of the most critical leadership behaviors and characteristics needed during times of crises are as follows:

Leader holding a team meeting to discuss the crisis situation.


Show Humility. Leaders need to remember that their employees are in pain. They may be grieving due to actual losses and illnesses of family members, and/or fears of all of the uncertainty. Thus, leaders can’t make the crisis about themselves, but rather about their employees (i.e., figuring out how to help their employees).  Humility means putting others first, not self.

Be Empathetic. Today empathy is needed more than ever before. Leaders have to be able to connect to their employees and their pain, sadness, and anxiety. Leaders need to acknowledge people’s fears and recognize that they may need support tailored to their own situation. They may be anxious or grieving the loss of normalcy (such as not being able to attend family events such as weddings, funerals, parties, etc). Not everyone, however, is in the same situation or is experiencing the same types of feelings. Some have gotten sick, some have lost family members, some are anxious due to the fear of the future, and some are exhausted from the emotional and physical turmoil of caring for family members. Being empathetic means understanding what each employee is experiencing and helping them to get through it.

Provide Transparent Communication. Leaders need to be visible by sharing updates with their employees and communication that is as transparent as it can be. While the leader and his or her immediate team may be “in the know”, many other employees are not. So it is critical to ensure everyone knows what is going on and has access to information. It is important for leaders to establish check-in routines or brief touch points to connect with employees on a regular basis.

Act Decisively. Leaders need to be able to quickly collect the relevant information and input from their experts, process it, and then make decisions. Employees can appreciate this, knowing that decisions have to be made in a timely manner.  Not everyone will be able to weigh into every decision, but the criteria for determining how individuals will weigh in, should be communicated. 

Plan for the Future. Leaders have to craft a clear vision of the future and to lay out a clear path to success. These visions need to be frequently revisited.

Express gratitude for employees’ commitment and dedication during this time. This is important all of the time, but especially during a crisis. Leaders need to reach out and thank employees for going above and beyond, especially when they are exhausted and have already put in numerous hours.

Continue to build morale and reinforce employees who build each other up and treat everyone with respect and dignity. These are very divisive times with people taking sides on issues of racism, politics, etc. Leaders need to ensure that while individuals may not agree on everything, that ALL employees are treated fairly and with respect. They need to let employees know that they have zero tolerance for bias, harassment, and discrimination.

Help employees find meaning. Leaders need to give people a role and purpose (e.g., tasks help to keep order). One strategy is to help employees focus on giving back to others so that they focus on more than just themselves.

Demonstrate and value adaptability. Leaders need to emphasize experimentation and learning. They need to let employees know that they may get things wrong and will have to pivot quickly, but that if they are making sound decisions based on facts, that it will be okay. Employees should be reinforced for being adaptable during crises situations since often things will change and those who are most flexible can help the firm to succeed.

Celebrate all victories, whether small or large. Leaders can’t wait until a crisis is over to celebrate their survival and success, especially if the crisis takes place over a long time period. Instead, they need to celebrate smaller wins to keep employees motivated.  As some have noted in baseball terms - the singles and doubles are what can help you, not just the home runs.

Lead from the front. Leaders are role models. They must be willing to be in the trenches with their employees. They can’t ask employees to do things they wouldn’t do. That could mean working long hours and under stressful situations.

Share a hopeful message for the future. Leaders need to honestly share the facts and challenges facing the firm (e.g., the firm is losing money, employees will experience salary cuts) and share a hopeful message about how the firm can survive and succeed by working together to overcome their challenges.

Leaders need to be sure to take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They have to stay strong to help their employees and the firm, which means they need to take care of themselves. Too often leaders put off their own health and well-being. Also, by letting their employees know that they are taking time to make sure they are healthy, they are also illustrating that everyone should be doing this.

Today’s times are challenging. Leaders need to demonstrate the right mix of characteristics and behaviors to help their employees not just survive, but more importantly – to thrive during a crisis.