When the Going Gets Tough, the Best Leaders Take Charge

4 min. read

We’ve all experienced managers who demonstrate different leadership capabilities. But in tough situations, differences between the really good managers, the average, and the self-absorbed prima donnas are startling.

Here’s why…

Leadership is a skill set, not a position.

It is the ability to influence others to take decisive and responsible action.

The best leaders are those that master the skills of building trust and relationships, not letting people know how smart they are. Good leaders tune in to people and think about how to have a positive impact, fully aware that situations and the people involved change.

Everyone has a gut response for communicating and dealing with people. Some are dictatorial, others more laid back. As a hired-gun, part of my role in coaching clients is to help them develop a variety of styles, to recognize the uniqueness of a particular situation and respond accordingly.

Leadership is influence – and it’s not a one-style-fits-all approach.

So, what happens in a crisis situation?

When the going gets tough, people go with their gut, and the impact varies based on whose gut we’re talking about.

The 3 Types of Leadership Guts:

The Really Good Manger is a Really Good Leader

What effective managers understand is that in a crisis, the #1 issue for people is feeling a lack of control.

Because leaders study people and situations, they are more tuned into when to be more directive (“I’m in charge”), or more collaborative (“Let’s figure this out”) , or anything in between to give people that sense of control. 

They assess what the situation requires and what influence they need to exert. They marshal the team together, if for nothing more than to be visible to them.  

They address the emotionality of the situation –– because that’s where people are at. Then, they move to logic and action. They are in charge. They’ve got this. They connect with the heart and the head. They know that perception counts. 

The Average Manager

Crises require gathering information, making informed decisions, and leading the team.

Average managers are likely to wait and see, take a more reactive approach – expecting someone else to give them explicit direction and guidance in order to fall in line.

They are more likely to want to deal with the details and explanation of the situation and less likely to address the concerns of the team.

They are often more comfortable with tasks than dealing with people. That’s one of the reasons they are “average.” Because they might waffle and appear indecisive. And, let’s face it –– the troops rely on the grapevine for news – and that’s where rumor and innuendo bend to worst case scenarios.

The Self-Absorbed Prima Donna

How these people become managers is beyond me.

It’s not unusual they were promoted into these positions because they were brain smart, not people smart.

They are motivated by ego, eager to look good at any cost and quick to blame others for failure. They’ll make up stuff to make themselves look good. You can’t count on them when times are good, and in a crisis, they’re useless. I’d check to see if they’re hiding in a lifeboat somewhere.


Ready to do what it takes? Keep reading.

Fear not. Leadership is a set of behaviors that can be taught, learned, and practiced. The best leaders give us the best example of what to do in a crisis.


5 Recommendations for Becoming a Great Leader During Tough Times

  1. Overcommunicate

    Human nature informs us that in the absence of information, people tend to think worst case. Keep the troops informed of what’s going on. Be honest. If you don’t know something you need to know, go find out. Don’t bs. When in doubt, overcommunicate.

  2. Be visible, approachable, and available to your team

    Pick 1-2 people each day to touch base with. This is the “how you doing” conversation. They want that.

  3. Model the behavior you expect of others

    If you need calm, act calm.

    If you need urgency, create the immediacy.

    In crisis situations, people will observe your every move – your voice, tone, body language, demeanor – more than even your border collie.

    Avoid mixed messages, like saying something is important and never following up with it.

  4. Be mindful

    Give yourself 15 minutes during the day to breathe, turn your brain off, and focus. There are plenty of podcasts if you’re looking for something to listen to.

  5. Be on the lookout for strategic opportunities

    Rahm Emmanuel was criticized for saying, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” 

    I think he makes a point. Think of something that’s critical – like improving a process, or changing a procedure – but you haven’t had the time or mindshare to do it.

    With things in flux, this could be the time to get a start.

• • •

Tough times call for leaders to take charge, tune in to their team, and use their presence to make things happen with direction and compassion.

Be that really good leader.