Leading through crisis is one of the biggest challenges any small business owner faces. The current global pandemic and resulting economic impact are calling small business leaders to step up in ways we’ve never experienced before. And while none of us were prepared for such a drastic blow to business as usual, now is the time to fully embrace your role as a leader.
Your capacity may be stretched, but you have the tenacity within you to perform under pressure.
After all, your actions in the midst of this crisis will significantly determine the fate of the business you’ve worked so hard to grow. Some factors are decidedly outside of your control, but you do have the power to determine how you respond.
It’s up to you to offer a way forward.
Why Leadership Matters
A stripped-down definition of leadership involves the practice of motivating your team to take progressive action toward achieving a common goal.
Strong small business leadership requires making solid strategic decisions, providing the resources and support necessary for everyone to do their jobs successfully, and modeling the kind of behavior you want to see throughout the company to meet your goals.
Crisis leadership calls for doing all of the above under mounting stress, worry, fear, anxiety, and pressure. You are grappling with staggering circumstances, dramatic and rapid change, and unprecedented uncertainty.
A strong leader will not only address urgent needs and make tough decisions swiftly but also operate with empathy and look beyond the immediate situation. You will always have obstacles — some bigger than others; so rather than focusing on what can’t be done, it’s time to focus on navigating the storm while keeping an eye on the brighter future ahead.
A crisis is not the time for falling back into your comfort zone. You can’t operationalize or micro-manage your way out of this. Your employees are living through uncertain times too; they are looking at you for direction and want to know what’s expected of them.
Business as usual isn’t going to cut it. You are serving as an anchor and inspiration in precarious and chaotic times.
One thing that hasn’t changed is you still want your business to thrive in the long run. So while your goals may shift and the way you work may change, at least temporarily, you have to do what’s necessary to keep moving in the right direction.
Even if you have to scale back in the short term, remember that your team exists to accomplish together what you can’t do on your own.
Leading Through Crisis
COVID-19 might be the biggest crisis of your small business leadership career or it may be one of many. But no matter what obstacles you face today or in the future, remember to breathe — you can emerge with your business intact and stronger than ever before.
Successfully leading through crisis requires that you are resilient, resourceful, and respectful.
An effective leader has to look at a crisis differently than most individuals. It’s easy to say we are all in this together, but it’s smart to recognize we are actually experiencing the current pandemic under vastly different circumstances. Keep in mind, this crisis lays bare that we all experience life differently and carry those differences into the workplace every day, so this is a lesson to carry forth into the future.
Good leadership is respectful of differences. Yes, being a leader calls you to share your vision, rally people behind your mission, and infuse your company values into the way your team gets the job done. But a good leader recognizes that beliefs vary and lifestyles are diverse.
On some level, you’ll need to meet your team members where they are. Avoid making assumptions; step back and be curious about what they may need to do their jobs well. If you want them to step up to the plate for you, you’ll need to clear the way and make that possible. It’s important to make connecting with their needs a top priority; and while everyone needs to do their part, the leader needs to see to it that what they’re asking is feasible.
Perhaps you’ve had to make the tough call to lay people off, cut back their hours, or furlough your staff. However, you know people are not expendable; they are key to your small business success. For those you are able to keep on board, do what you can to keep them engaged and inspired.
Your immediate concern should be to provide clear, steadfast communication and leadership. Don’t just tell them what to do, but help them understand why they are doing it. Sending incoherent or mixed messages — particularly in the midst of uncertainty — will damage your credibility and interfere with your ability to be an effective leader.
Without a doubt, the individuals on your team are feeling the pressure of the times. How do you want them to remember you when they look back on this crisis? How you handle your human resources now is part of your business brand and your legacy as a leader.
Successfully leading through crisis means being resourceful. You’re no longer playing the same game and you are not playing by the same rules, so it’s best to burn the playbook. We’re in unchartered territory, and you’ll have to be more creative than you were before.
The best approach you can take is to do what you can with what you have. If revenue is down and cash flow is tight, you might have to cut back in a number of ways. However, you can ramp up in other ways using the resources you have available and with what you can access.
If you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or don’t know where to start, you’re not alone. A lot of people are feeling similar pressure, so seek input and ask for help. Maybe that means calling on your leadership team to step up, maybe it means turning to your staff for ideas, or maybe it means tapping a mentor or working with a leadership or HR consultant. You don’t have to go it alone.
There’s no need to quit when the going gets tough. You may need to pivot, adapt, try something new, or look into options you’ve never considered. Some businesses are revamping their entire business model and bringing creative new offerings to the marketplace.
Put on your entrepreneurial thinking cap, do some serious brainstorming, pull out all the stops and get scrappy if you have to. The beauty of small business is you can be nimble and responsive as needed.
Being resilient means more than just being persistent. Yes, doing what is difficult means adopting a tenacious attitude, but it also means accepting what you cannot change, adjusting, modifying, and innovating as you go.
You’re allowed to be an emotional person and you are allowed to feel the negativity weighing you down, but you can’t afford to dwell in doom and gloom. If you want to come out on top, you will need to monitor your emotions, look for the positive in every situation, and always focus on what you are grateful for under any circumstance.
Continuously ask yourself what more you can do to help — not to the point of burnout and exhaustion, but to reinforce a sense of confidence in what you’ve created and its power to endure.
Leading into the Future
We don’t know what the future holds, but the truth is we never did. How you lead through this crisis will impact the future of your small business in the long-term. Whether you are currently feeling the crunch or not, chances are we will continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 in some ways well into the future.
You can come out of this with your leadership skills sharpened, embracing the opportunity to build an even brighter—albeit different — future.