We've all witnessed how good and bad leaders respond to crisis. From life-threatening events to the most trivial experiences, we sit at the edge of our seats waiting for a hero or scapegoat. In 2009, Pilot Chelsey Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board after a flock of geese disabled the plane. Leadership doesn't get much more heroic than this.

The effectiveness of a leader is often tested during a crisis. It's easy to steer a ship in calm waters, when everything is predictable. When things become unstable, however, is when strong leaders rise to the occasion.

One of my favorite TED Talks is Simon Sinek's "Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe." He shares an example of a company that is facing a financial crisis. The Board of Directors wants the CEO to slash divisions and jobs to stop the bleeding. The CEO has another idea: to distribute salary reductions across the company, and allow employees to trade time off, so that no one needs to lose their job. Under this scenario, profits skyrocketed because employees felt safe.

The CEO opted for a long-term solution, rather than a short-term fix, which is one of the most important actions a leader can take in terms of crisis. Harvard Business Research explains that leaders who practice "adaptive leadership" "seize the opportunity to hit the organization's reset button. They use turbulence to build on and bring closure to the past. They change key rules of the game, reshape parts of the organization, and redefine the work people do." 

Today, leaders face unprecedented scrutiny. While leaders have always been under the microscope and in the spotlight, now they face amplified criticism from millions of people that don't even know them. 

So what can leaders do when their organization hits a rough patch?  Here are 5 strategies they can use to keep the organization moving forward. 

  1. Objectively assess the situation before reacting. As a CEO strategist and coach that has helped hundreds of leaders navigate difficult situations, I always remember that my clients are in an emotional place when they share their challenges. While I always believe their assessment, I know there are many truths to a situation. Part of my job is to help them see multiple perspectives and positions so that they can make the most informed, non-emotional decision possible. 
  2. Respond with thoughtful urgency. In a crisis, time is of the essence. However, there is no room for hasty, reactive responses. Leaders must quickly weigh all options and then commit to a plan of action that protects the organization's long-term interests. 
  3. Seek help.  I have 3 key advisers on speed dial. All leaders need a small network of experts that will provide honest feedback, clarity, and can help you devise a plan of action when your back is against the wall. I serve in the role for at least a dozen clients.
  4. Delegate and keep the business moving. It's easy for a crisis to engulf you but you have an organization or a business to run. Set the course of action, activate your troops, and keep moving forward. 
  5. Remember that flexibility is key. The best laid plans often need to be changed. Be prepared to pivot at a moment's notice if your plans don't resolve your problem. 

Finally, remember the 4 most important words in any personal or professional setback: "This too shall pass." No single challenge or mistake defines us. No single opinion defines us. We are all imperfect and no one has it all figured out.

I advise my clients and those that I mentor to remember that our challenges (in work and life) are a blip on our larger radar screen They don't represent all that we are, all that we've been, or where we are going. They are a snapshot of a precise moment in time.

Everything is impermanent... the good and the bad. Our obstacles are not barriers to our path. They are our path. Keeping the perspective that "this too shall pass" gives us the strength to move through our challenges with grace and confidence, and emerge on the other side in a stronger place.