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Communication - the Lifeblood of Crisis Leadership

A skill set that any aspiring Leader should master

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

As I wrote in a previous piece, times of crisis can also be excellent learning opportunities. There are certain tools that rise to the forefront of a leaders's tool kit during a crisis, and the ability to effectively communicate should be the first one they reach for.

This applies whether you are dealing with a physical crisis like a pandemic or natural disaster or if you are sitting one one one with a team member who is clearly in distress and may be in the first stages of burnout or compassion fatigue or PTSD.

In essence, strong communication breaks down into the 5 Ws that we all learned as kids. If you sort the components that way, you can start to look at conversations as bite-sized chunks, not a blob of ideas and words that may seem overwhelming.

Daleana Cristina Studios


Who is responsible for communication in a crisis? You are. As a Leader you should, within reason and considering the circumstances you may find yourself in logistically or tactically, be able to have a discussion with anyone on your team, be it a casual 'How are things?' or a more serious 'You haven't seemed yourself lately. How are you doing?' If your direct reports are not willing to engage you in conversation, no matter how trivial, I would hazard a guess that your people are either afraid of you or don't respect you. Neither of these labels are one that a strong Leader who cares about serving their team to the best of their abilities should ever want to wear.


Most Leaders are naturally good talkers. They find it easy to strike up conversations even with strangers, usually able to find some common ground in most circumstances. With this in mind, it should (usually) be a simple matter to have good communication with your team. Here, however, is where Leaders start to be separated from managers. Leaders will listen for those little hints in even simple conversations that let them know that something is not as it seems - a slight pause before answering, body language not matching words or tone, the eyes darting back and forth. These conversations, where it appears that something simply isn't right, will be the ones that will allow you to open the door.

If you can have solid, pleasant interactions with your team on a regular basis, you build rapport with them. Rapport is what will open the door to longer, more critical conversations when someone's world is going to hell and all they see is darkness surrounding them.


Even the most critical conversations can take place in seemingly odd places - at the side of a road parked car to car, during runs on treadmills side by side, sitting in a coffee shop on a break.

The key is to offer a safe, secure environment where people are more likely to be willing to engage you in deeper conversation AND more likely to listen to what you have to say as well.

(By the way, another rule of thumb. You should be listening far more than you are talking! Leaders are naturally given to want to solve problems and jump in with solutions. It takes experience and practice to learn to actively listen to someone coming to you in a time of need until they have told their entire story.)

Another critical point. There is a very old saying - praise in public, punish in private. There are fewer surefire ways to lose the confidence of your team then to dress one of them down in public. I know this has been de riguer for centuries in military and para-military organizations, in an effort to break down recruits in order to build them back up to begin facing the rigours of combat, but unless you're in a situation where you're being shot at, a good rule of thumb is to take care of disciplinary issues behind closed doors but sing the praises of your team to the moon and back in front of everyone.

(Critical discussions with a particularly troublesome team member can be had in the open as a tactical tool to demonstrate a point or attempt to re-moralize a team that has been demoralized by that member. However, having these conversations is like tap-dancing in a minefield. Proceed at your own risk!)


This one is simple. You should be addressing a crisis during or as soon as possible after the crisis starts. Take time to assemble your thoughts, consult with your confidants or higher-ups, put together your facts (and fact-check them!) and then say something about what's happening. The longer you as a Leader stay silent about a crisis, the quicker and more drastic the rumours, gossip, and innuendo will become. As renowned American humourist Will Rogers said 'Rumor travels faster but it don't stay put as long as truth.' Fill in gaps before they start to become filled in for you and you have to start not only dealing with the crisis but doing damage control.


Why even have these conversations? Why put yourself into the sometimes uncomfortable role of broaching sensitive topics like someone's mental state, health, family issues, financial instability....the list goes on.

Why? Because as a Leader it's your role to care. It's your role to initiate these sometimes life-changing conversations because someone on your team is hurting, and because a frank, honest empathetic discussion may be the only way to begin bridging the void your team member feels is surrounding them.

Why? Because no one wants to feel alone as they go through hell, and your voice and presence could be the first sign to someone in crisis that they aren't going through the struggle by themselves.

Tips and Tricks

Treading the waters of these difficult conversations is both art and science. They are certainly not impossible, but you need to work at them and you need to practice them if you truly want to add several powerful weapons to your arsenal of Leadership.

-if someone (or something) is in crisis, act! Say something and do something, keeping in mind your organization's P&P and any legalities / confidentiality issues that you may be teetering on the edge of;

-don't use platitudes like 'I understand how you're feeling' unless you truly do. No one wants to feel like they're being placated; however, if you have been through a similar experience and are willing to open up about it, that shared bond can be an incredible builder of trust and rapport;

-there should only be 'we' in tough times, not 'you'. No one wants to hear 'Sounds bad, sorry you're going through that. Here are a bunch of pamphlets for the employee support program.' That's not being a Leader, that's being a manager, or, at worst, a robot going through the motions just enough to say that they did 'something' should the worst happen and an investigation or inquest result. The power of 'We'll get through this together' coming from you as a Leader can not be overstated;

-sometimes, people simply need to talk, to get something off their chest. This is where the concept of active listening comes into play. If you as a Leader can offer someone the opportunity to offload a burden, without judgement and without jumping in with a suggestion every two minutes, you have again built trust and rapport with that person, possibly allowing them to clear their mind of something that has been dogging them for days, weeks, even years;

-never, ever offer pity. At worst, offer sympathy (I'm sorry your dog died); at best, and ideally, offer empathy (I remember how much it hurt when my dog died. It's an awful experience.) No one wants to be pitied when they are already feeling lost, and empathy allows you to build a bridge for that person to take some tenuous first steps on because it lets them see that you understand where they are;

-if you have an 'open door policy', you need to be very clear on what that means. Crises don't run on timetables, and when someone comes to your door on the verge of tears and you're two minutes from a conference call or video chat, you have a decision to make. Do you tell the person to come in and disregard your appointment? Do you tell them that you can't talk? Do you tell them that they clearly have something important on their mind, which makes it important to you, and if they can give you 15 minutes you can sit down together and quietly discuss what's happening? This is all circumstantial, of course, dependent on work environment, time of day, and so on, but it is something you should have laid out for yourself as a Leader before you're confronted with a team member who is on the edge of a breakdown and a report due to your upper management in 10 minutes at the same time!

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw summed up these thoughts simply - 'The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it's taken place.' Both sides of a conversation must feel fulfilled for it to be considered a success; your role as a Leader isn't complete if you walk away feeling like you've made your point but the other person is left scratching their head in wonder, anger, or sadness.

The next piece in this series will be about the importance of self-awareness and reflection as a Leader. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

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