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April 2020

By Moraine Byrne

An executive leader once described today’s work life as a river where the rapids never end. There are no side pools, eddies, or still waters where you can rest. The water continues to flow so fast that you are constantly moving your paddle to remain steady and to navigate the rocks. If that sounds like your work life and the daily challenges you face, imagine that you are now heading to a steep waterfall and you must quickly make decisions on how to keep from going over and drowning. That waterfall ahead of you is definitely a crisis. And, in the career of every executive, you will be faced with at least one major work crisis.

So, what do we do as leaders in times of crisis? How do we keep the boat (organization) upright? What should we do to ensure that others trust us and paddle in the same direction?

Great leaders do the following:

  1. Be Courageous
  2. Exude Calmness
  3. Listen and Consider
  4. Plan Realistically
  5. Be Transparent and Communicate Often
  6. Stay Strong and Persevere

Let’s break down how you can demonstrate those traits during times of crisis.


Many effective leaders find courage in their spirituality and their faith. Courage comes from our deep commitment to do the right thing and to support a cause. A person’s faith can support the need to make difficult decisions and to face down adversaries who threaten the vulnerable people whom we serve. We often hear people referred to as “servant-leaders.” A servant leader is a person who has the courage to humble themselves and to serve every person, regardless of position or wealth.

Courageous leaders are motivated by a sense of purpose. As a leader, each of us must firmly believe in the mission of our organization. We make the mission our own and step up to lead others to adopt the same mission. That takes courage, commitment and the motivation to face the crisis.

I particularly like this quote from author and renowned speaker, Brene Brown. “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.”

As the leader of your organization, you step out of your comfort zone to be courageous and to face a crisis. You must lead through the crisis and not allow the crisis to make you fearful. If you allow fear to overcome you, you will fail to confront the challenge and will seek comfort only. This is, of course, easier to write than to do, but a reminder each day of why you are doing the work will bring forth your passion and stoke your courage. If it does not, then you may not be in the right position. Crises have shaken CEO’s, Presidents, Boards of Directors and other leaders to the point that they have chosen to depart. While that is a difficult transition for any organization in the midst of a crisis, it is the most courageous thing for a leader to do, to say that they are not up to the task or no longer feel compelled to be there.

Courageous leaders in times of crisis also seek to learn from the experience. They are optimists and expect the future to once again be bright. They step up to manage through the crisis and to learn new skills. They challenge their key staff to do the same.

As has been said many times, “Challenges present opportunities for growth and change.” Not sure who to attribute that quote to, but I believe it. The biggest challenges of my career presented me with learning experiences. It’s a matter of being open to the learning.

A courageous man and leader was Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail, he taught us that courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear. Dr. King did not tell us that there would not be obstacles. Instead, he told us that courage is the ability to go forward in spite of the obstacles.

That is the courage to demonstrate to our many audiences when a crisis arises. Be the courageous leader they seek.


In times of crisis, you have a small window of time to gain trust and loyalty from your staff members and others with whom you interact. What we say is a very small percentage of what people hear and internalize. The body language and the tone of conversation are more important to other people’s perception of us.

If you rush through the halls and common areas of your retirement community and appear haggard, even if you say nothing, your staff and residents will perceive that something is wrong. The feeling of unease will grow if you do not present yourself well at all times.

Walk at a comfortable pace, ready and willing to stop and smile and to acknowledge others. Be genuine. People know when we are not. Breathe deeply and practice smiling before you leave your office and the very stressful meeting you just completed. A calm demeanor walking through the community in times of crisis calms others. If you must get to the next meeting, phone call or whatever it may be, walk at a comfortable pace and wave at others. That gesture is friendly and gives the impression that you are in control and not stressed.

There are many articles and studies that describe ways to manage your body language to give different impressions. My suggestion for when you are presenting to residents, staff members, family members or boards of directors, is to present a calm and open image. This is usually accomplished by standing with your shoulders straight and your chest pulled up. Keep your jaw relaxed and ready with a smile. Keep your head up and not cocked to one side. Maintain eye contact with speakers and audience members. Use your hands for gestures to emphasize points and to acknowledge others. If you are sitting, keep your feet on the floor and use open arm and hand gestures. These often take practice. Take the time to practice in private so they become natural.

Another way to exude calmness is to present, what I refer to as, thoughtful action. Thoughtful action means that you present action plans in a logical and simple-to-understand way. Be sure that you know the points by heart and that you can state them in different ways so that if you are asked to clarify, you have another description. Rarely is a flow chart or Power Point needed to present thoughtful action. This is the time to show that you’ve given thought to a direction and that you are stating next steps. It is not the time to fully present all components of the plan.

What leaders often forget is that we have the big picture and the people we are talking with, often don’t. Deliver a calm and thoughtful statement of action. Gain trust and build confidence in your ability to lead.

An example is to say: “We are faced with a challenge that may look overwhelming. I believe that it is a BIG challenge but one that we can overcome and one that will bring us together in ways that we’ve not experienced. Our focus remains on our mission – to serve and to support older adults who have chosen our community as their home. In the next several days, we will be working together to develop and to implement detailed plans and I will need you to join me in getting past this big challenge.”

You can then go on to say who you’ll be including in the planning and a general timeline. If you are asked a question and don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say that I don’t know the answer yet. If it is something you should know and you can get the answer, state that you’ll share the answer in the next communication. Then follow through.

Another important aspect to project calmness is to set appropriate boundaries during the times of crisis. You will need planning time, time to have confidential conversations, and time to rest and rejuvenate in order to do your best. Define when and where you will be available to take questions. If you know that you’ll be off the campus grounds for meetings, tell your audience that you will be away working on their behalf. If you know that residents tend to congregate outside your office, set up a waiting area for them where they can be served coffee and water and hosted by a volunteer or staff member you can trust. Identify a trusted staff member to triage your e-mails, phone calls and other messages. Be transparent and tell your audience what you are doing. They are smart people and want to trust and believe in you. You are their leader.


Sometimes leaders may want to appear to have everything under control, all scenarios already well planned and that they do not take the advice of others. Such a leader is doomed to fail in a crisis.

Leadership is not about having all the answers or having every detail planned by yourself. It is knowing when to ask for input and advice, and who to include. There are hierarchical leaders according to your org chart. Yes, you need to include them as appropriate to their position, but you should look for those unofficial influencers and leaders in your organization that others will trust. Those leaders may be from the front-line staff in any department. The influencers may be key residents or volunteers that others will follow. Seek out input and to include all leaders and influencers. It is your job to ask, listen, consider and to make decisions.

When we ask input and advice from others, we may hear things that we do not understand or that we do not want to hear. People will share their feelings and fears in different ways. Ask clarifying questions. Get to the root of the fears. Don’t negate anyone’s feelings. We are human and each person handles stress and challenges differently.

When you, as the leader, listen carefully, seek to understand and show consideration for all input, you are showing your audiences that you are capable of meeting the challenge. Even if you choose to go down a path that was not what they wanted or expected, they will more likely follow and support the decision.

Establishing multiple communication channels to receive input, and to keep those channels open throughout the crisis will serve you and the organization well. Consider setting up an online site where people can go to get frequent communication updates. Set up a response mechanism for people to ask questions and to comment, where the information goes to one person for response. And make sure that the person is responding in a positive and clear tone, with messaging matching what you are sharing. Another good way to keep information flowing in a retirement community, is to print updates and to post them wherever your front-line staff members congregate. It may be at a time clock, a staff break room, or at a staff entry door to buildings. With the number of shifts and the number of staff members who may not be receiving updates in any other way, brief written messages can be empowering. Don’t ever put your staff members in a position of telling a resident, “I only work here. No one tells me anything.” I cringed when I wrote that, but I have heard that said at too many communities.

A number of organizations have set up telephone hotlines for people to call. If you cannot staff the hotline with a live person, be sure that the recorded message is updated and easy to understand.

If you have kiosks for residents, visitors, or staff members, use them to communicate updates. Keep the messages clear and concise. Change them frequently and encourage your audiences to look at them for new information.


One of the challenges when facing a crisis is to plan what can be done and in a realistic timeline. If you have asked your leaders and influencers for their input, you will have numerous ideas and directions that you could choose. As the leader in charge, you must identify what are the most effective and realistic measures that should be taken. You then engage others to execute the plan.

Plans are written to change. Not only do things change in a crisis, but new information is learned that will cause you to adjust your plans. That is wise leadership. Don’t stick to a plan simply because you wrote it.

When leaders develop plans that cannot be accomplished, or they promise deadlines that are not realistic, they lose credibility. They sabotage the efforts of not only themselves, but of everyone who is working to beat the crisis.

Staff members often want to accomplish everything quickly and can be over confident in their abilities. Their enthusiasm is to be commended, and it is your job to ask questions and to help them develop realistic goals and timelines. You will do a service to them and to the entire organization.

If a plan must be changed, and it’s likely it will, be transparent and tell your audiences that it is changing and why. Bring your audience into the communication circle and be honest. If something has occurred that is confidential and specifics cannot be shared, tell them why you can’t share. If people know that you are being honest with them and have the organization’s best interests in mind, they usually understand and accept.

In times of crisis, there are often numerous outside agencies, consultants, attorneys and others who influence your plan. Considering input from all parties is critical and must shape planning. But, the leader is also the person who should ask questions and sometimes challenge the outside groups and their assumptions. You know your organization best. You must lead through the crisis. And, you are in charge of the plans.


  1. Locking away your leadership team in private meetings for long periods of time, without communicating the outcomes, will start rumors and foster distrust.
  2. Communicate at every shift and in ways that calm and communicate, not confuse. Emotions cannot be communicated via e-mail and text. Often not in memos either.
  3. If you don’t know an answer, say so. If you can find out the answer, say when you will and follow up. If you cannot share information because of privacy for clients, staff members or family, tell the truth and why you cannot communicate.
  4. Don’t go it alone. You can’t be everywhere that communication is needed. Provide talking points and key messages to other leaders and influencers within the organization.
  5. If you are part of a larger organization, ask your headquarters to keep you apprised and communicate with them what you are saying and doing. Neither party wants surprises.
  6. If you are the CEO/Executive Director/Leader in Charge, don’t accept from your headquarters that you cannot communicate. Push hard to determine what you CAN say and do.
  7. Communicating each day, or more often if things change, is better than allowing people to wonder and to speculate.


Leaders who remain strong in their commitment and devotion to the mission of the organization, are most likely to lead well and weather the crisis. Persevere through the challenges, expecting that there will be an end to the crisis and that you and your team will have learned from what you have faced. We are working with people to serve others. Whenever we deal with people, there are surprises and emotions. You, as the leader, set the stage for your organization to thrive once again and to move beyond the crisis at hand.

Moraine Byrne is a Senior Advisor to Webb Strategic Communications. Find more of Webb's crisis expertise including essential crisis communication tools for senior living and service organizations.

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