Five Leadership Priorities in Times of Distress

John Collins, Critical Victories

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Leadership is easy when times are good. It doesn’t require much skill or talent to influence people who aren’t confronted by any challenges. But when times become difficult, we get a front-row seat to a leader’s true abilities and temperament.

Leading through times of distress is challenging, to say the least. The more intense the distress, the more challenging the leadership effort becomes.

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a year like no other. We have never witnessed nor experienced the kinds of personal and professional disruptions that have overtaken nearly every aspect of our lives.

I recall September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday. I was the director of the DuPage County Crime Laboratory in Wheaton, Illinois and we were in the middle of our five-year accreditation inspection when the attacks happened. That day, as well as the days and weeks and months that followed, were very painful. Life didn’t feel the same. Work didn’t feel the same either.

But on a national scale, the grip the attacks had on our personal lives went away as quickly as it came. Yes, the horrors we felt and witnessed stayed with us. But we could go to the store. We could go to work. We could visit friends. Heck, with the exception of a short travel ban, we could do whatever we wanted to do and go wherever we wanted to go.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shutdown of our lives are unlike anything that’s ever happened in human history. And for those of us tasked with the responsibilities of leadership, we are confronted by the enormous challenge of coping with our own distress while bringing as much comfort and normalcy to our teams as we can.

Leading during times of distress is not easy. But, by the same token, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate competent leadership and earn the long-term trust and confidence of your team. So whether you’re dealing with challenging times now or in the future, there are five priorities on which you should focus.

1. Set clear goals and focus on them

Crisis is debilitating because it robs us of our sense of relevance. We become victims of circumstance, left to feel powerless and directionless, like a ship without power in stormy seas. A dear friend and colleague of mine once encouraged me through a very challenging time in my career. He said, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” He was right. The promise of a brighter tomorrow is the medicine we need to get through a darker today. When times are most difficult, it is important to rally yourself and your team around a set of goals that bring energy and commitment. Those goals become your beacon of light and distract you from the feelings of doubt and uncertainty that otherwise consume you.

2. Put your team before yourself and others

No individual is more important than the team. Never is this truer than during times of distress. Everything that is said, every decision that is made, and every action that is taken should be for the good of the team. When individuals prioritize their teams, they emotionally distance themselves from the challenges at hand - it is no longer about them because it is about the team. As a leader, resist the temptation to talk about yourself or make yourself the subject of conversation because you are not. Make it about your team and watch how your team rises to meet the challenges before it.

3. Allow your people to see your discomfort

This is not the time to stroke your ego and act like you are unaffected by what is going on. Doing so strips away both your humanity and your credibility. People don’t want to be led by a robot. They want to be led by a human being, someone who feels what they are feeling. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be angry or frustrated. But never allow it to come at the expense of your confidence. Your team should see you as leader who intends to succeed in spite of what’s going on and the emotions you are experiencing. People are more likely to follow and support the leader who is struggling than the leader who is putting on a show.

4. Stay visible

During times of distress, it is tempting to want to isolate yourself. Don’t do it. Stay visible and close to your people. Keep your door open and make an effort to check in on people to make sure they are ok. And remember, you are still alive and breathing so smile and laugh when you can.

5. Meet more often

In June of last year, I participated in a 430 mile, 7-day bike ride through the Rocky Mountains. Some of the climbs took nearly 3 hours to reach the tops of the passes, during which time every minute felt like an hour as each rider coped with burning leg muscles and oxygen deprivation. A common strategy used by cyclists on long climbs is to pick out small objects up ahead – such as trees, rocks, or road signs - and ride to them, repeating over and over again as you go along. Each object becomes a small victory and breaks the monotony of the climb.

Similarly, meeting with your team more often can break up the monotony of a crisis. No, these meetings should not be a waste of time. They should be fruitful, constructive, focused, and enjoyable (if possible). The more difficult the challenges your team faces, the more often you should be pulling together as a cohesive unit to encourage each other and discuss your goals. Until the major victory of getting through the crisis is achieved, give your team small victories to enjoy along the way.

As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough the tough get going. But it really isn’t about being tough. It’s about being smart, creative, and committed to your mission. Leading through times of distress can be very challenging, but it’s also an opportunity to test the limits of your leadership abilities.

You and your team will be stronger because of it.

John M. Collins is an executive coach, leadership strategist, and facilitator specializing in high-stakes, high-impact teams and organizations. He is also the creator and facilitator of the Executive Accelerator for Forensic Science Professionals, a 12-week intensive leadership immersion for developing executive leadership skills in forensic science. Visit John at or click here to schedule a call.