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!)