How to Lead Through Chaos

By Mike Raia | Published October 5, 2018

What separates a truly great leader from the merely good? In most cases, it's the ability to rise to the occasion during times of crisis and chaos.

Here's the truth: It's one thing to effectively manage people and set a positive example under optimal conditions. To do so under the most taxing kind of pressure, however, is another thing entirely. Intense strain can reveal fissures that leaders never knew existed, ultimately leading to devastating mistakes and judgment lapses.

History tells us that scenarios such as these unfold with regularity. Public relations disasters occur, key employees depart, security breaches happen -- and leaders must be ready to shine. Your workers will certainly be watching; their scrutiny of your actions will never be higher than during a period of turbulence. Great leaders know that others will take their cue from how they respond, and act accordingly.

Fortunately, it is possible to ready yourself for the crucible of leadership in challenging, high-stress conditions. To help you better prepare for such scenarios, let's take a closer look at some tips, tactics, and principles you can apply when the going gets particularly tough.

workflow resources

Why a Detailed Preparation Strategy is Critically Important

Sometimes small to mid-sized firms don't see the need for a crisis plan, assuming that worrying about such outcomes is something only larger enterprises have to do. According to one study, only 54-percent of firms bother to create such a plan. This, however, is akin to sailing without life vests.

When a crisis arrives, it's imperative to remain calm, focused and cognizant of the fact that everyone is looking to you for leadership. It's an exceedingly difficult act to master if you're roiling in your own deep sea of uncertainty and doubt.

Drafting a formal crisis management plan is the best way to avoid this, as it gives you a foundation on which to build your crisis response. Instead of dealing with the situation in an improvisational fashion, you'll have a well-thought-out playbook to guide your actions.

The truth is that while no two crises may be precisely alike, most of them come in familiar shapes: A product recall, legal trouble, security breaches, etc. By exploring these scenarios with planning tools such as decision trees and role-playing, you can create a detailed response plan that will help you exhibit strong leadership while minimizing the risk of unforced errors.

Maintain Open Communications

leading through chaos on the twisting roadsIn times of crisis, it's natural for members of an organization to feel anxiety about how they will be affected by events that are unfolding. Staff members are going to want reassurance that leadership is doing everything within its power to resolve the situation. The same holds true for customers.

An open channel of communication is vitally important during these scenarios. Without it, staff members will quickly grow concerned, filling in the blanks with supposition and rumor -- which if left unchecked, can spread rapidly and cause serious harm to morale.

Instead, acknowledge what you can (while exercising discretion with regard to sensitive information) and ensure you have a system that encourages timely two-way communication. If someone has a question, make sure there is a process in place for answers.

While open communication is essential, it's also important to consider how your messages are being conveyed. Great leaders tend to have one thing in common: They are also great communicators. They understand what motivates and moves people and they know how to connect with audiences -- all essential qualities during a crisis.

Leadership After the Event

When chaotic or challenging situations arise, adrenaline starts to flow. Leaders are galvanized into action by the need to take strong measures to protect the viability of the organization. It's often an "all hands on deck" situation until the issue is resolved.

The aftermath, however, is another story. Leaders must be careful not to empty the fuel tank during the most intense portions of a chaotic period, as the weeks and months after a crisis event are often just as critically important to the future of an organization.

Leaders should also endeavor to learn everything they can from each event. Meet with people, ask them about their experiences and gather feedback. Have your team document each step taken during the crisis and review the overall efficacy of the response. Be rigorous in your evaluation and ask the hard questions: Could you have seen the problem coming? Did you miss any indicators? Was your leadership style effective?

After the review is finished, make changes to your crisis management plan as needed.

productivity eBook

Additional Tips for Leading in Tough Situations

Now that we've taken a closer look at some general principles of leadership under stress, let's review some of the more common workplace challenges new leaders often face.

  • Motivating employees when business is down. A business downturn is one of the most challenging situations to deal with in terms of morale. When workers feel insecure about their position, it becomes difficult to be productive -- at home or on the job. That's the last position any business with financial issues wants to occupy. In cases such as these, be transparent with your staff, yet also be as encouraging as possible. People will feel better if they have some sense of agency or control, so it sometimes makes sense to form problem-solving groups that can be tasked with generating new business leads, revenue sources, etc.
  • Dealing with negative PR. Sometimes, one person makes a mistake and it resonates throughout the entire organization. If your organization is in the public eye for the wrong kind of reason, it's important to focus not only on public perception but also internal perception. People want to feel good about where they work; a great leader can provide that reassurance, and make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of controlling the narrative.
  • Losing key personnel. This is a situation that will test almost every leader, and usually sooner rather than later. Replacing a key staff member can result in the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge, affect relationships with customers and vendors and even alter the office culture. It will almost certainly result in more work for colleagues, at least in the short term. A great leader understands all of this and works to get ahead of the situation, reassuring all the key parties and making sure that workflows aren't disrupted.

The Takeaway

Great leadership in times of chaos and crisis is invaluable, yet it's also not an innate trait. If you're a new leader, you should feel confident that you can cultivate the necessary skills to navigate any organizational challenge.

Follow the ideas outlined above and you'll be on the fast track to effective leadership.

leadership   management   crisis management  

Business Ideas   Project Management  

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. Connect with me on LinkedIn at