Leadership during crises: Tips from a proven leader

During COVID-19 more than ever, content and articles needed to add value to the reader, and there is nothing better than sharing real life ‘battle tested’ advice on leadership and crises. So, I decided it would be meaningful to collaborate with leaders at different levels and get their thoughts on leading through crises and COVID-19. I am talking about leaders who are currently dealing with COVID and/or have led through crises such as armed conflict, natural disasters, GFC, etc.

Leaders with advice worth heeding.

A proven leader. 

Here, I share leadership advice from Lieutenant General (Retired) Tim Keating, MNZM. I have personally worked with Tim and highly regard him as someone who ‘walks the walk’ when it comes to leadership. Starting his career as an NZ SAS Officer, he rose to the highest rank in NZ military as the Chief of Defence Force, after numerous executive level appointments in NZ and overseas. Needless to say, Tim has led through his fair share of crises both here and overseas. I was with him when the Kaikoura earthquakes struck on 14 Nov 2016. Tim’s leadership lessons will be enough to write a great book, and then some! But for the article, I reached out and asked if he could share key leadership insights and advice for executives and senior leaders as they tackle COVID-19.

Leadership Substance. 

The first thing that stood out to me from his response, was the need for leadership ‘substance’. Influencing, motivating and inspiring confidence is important, but as Tim says leaders must “not underplay the importance of substance, and you cannot learn substance in a time of crisis, we hope those in leadership positions are preloaded with this”. This raises the first key take away from this article, leaders need to prepare for crisis long before it arises.

Substance comes from a well-developed and practiced leadership and substance is important “in that you have to have good situational knowledge, but you cannot be an expert for every contingency you have to lead through”. As Tim further explains, to enhance situational substance you need to build a trusted team to advise and guide you, and help you make decisions based on the best facts and analysis available. This is also where diversity of thought is important, where the leader’s role becomes to determine the direction and path through the differing opinions.

“Real leaders step forward in a time of challenge to lead people to where they need to go, not necessarily want to go…making the tough and often unpopular decisions”

Lead people where they need to go. 

This leads into another key observation Tim shared, which is worth unpacking. We are currently in desperate need for good leadership across the globe, with many politicians and influential leaders driving towards populist policy, looking for polls and tending to peoples wants. As Tim reflects, “real leaders step forward in a time of challenge to lead people to where they need to go, not necessarily want to go…making the tough and often unpopular decisions” if needed. This reminds me of Foucault Philosophy, where the leader may have the intent to do what’s right, but they may not feel the freedom to act if they are constrained by the tolerance of their followers. This is when true leaders need to shine.

Sustain yourself. 

Tim went on to mention three key pieces of advice which he shared with his current executive and senior leadership team, to help them through COVID-19. But before we discuss these, it’s worth considering and reflecting on how you as leaders are coping right now, as you read this article. Many leaders are running on adrenaline, especially in NZ where we are less than a week into isolation and businesses are still figuring out the new battle rhythm.

…when you are under attack you fight, you survive, and you prepare for the next wave of attack! It’s about sustainment

Four weeks of isolation is a long time, and it could be longer (I sincerely hope not). But in a battle context, when you are under attack you fight, you survive, and you prepare for the next wave of attack! It’s about sustainment. As leaders, it is going to take substantial effort to stay at the top of your game for an extended period, and you need to bring the best version of ‘you’ to your team. As Tim describes it, “it may sound simplistic, but how a leader looks and sounds (inc. non-verbal comms) is as important as what they say in times like this”. It is important how you present yourself in crises, regardless of how difficult the situation, and this reflects in Tim’s three key pieces of advice below for his executive and senior leaders during COVID-19.

Embrace the challenge. 

These are unique times with unique challenges, and as Tim adds “this is not management, it is leadership in its purest sense”. This comes back to the concept of Leadership, Command and Management, or the ‘Executive’s Trinity’ as Stephen Bungay puts it. Leadership is all about influencing, motivating and empowering others, and is critical at times like these, as opposed to using mainly management or authority (command) to deal with complexities and uncertainties. This is also the best time to learn and hone your leadership skills. Tim recommends “keeping a diary as your views/learnings will be in high demand when this is all over, therefore recording at the time why you undertook certain actions will form an important record for you later”.

Followers always observe their leaders. 

As a leader, you are under the spotlight and your team is observing you. As Tim says “your behaviours, language, health, mannerisms, reactions, responses, etc. are all a window your people often look through, and in times like these your people will take cues from you, and in particular they will be looking for changes in you”. Fear, stress and anxiety is contagious. But so is calm and confidence. Your team will pick up on what you are demonstrating. This goes back to the leadership of self, bringing the best version of you to the team, they need it in crises. Even if it means you are a duck gliding on the water, paddling hard underneath.

We are all human. 

This is a lesson Tim admits he learned the hard way, as leaders “you are not invulnerable to the pressures everyone is feeling, get over it”. He expands that the stressors placed on you as leaders are often different to those of your followers. So, leaders need to develop new strategies to manage themselves to cope with the added pressures. The self-management strategies that worked for you in the past, may not work for you as a senior or executive leader. “This also means family, staff, clients, customers and colleagues do not become outlets of your frustrations and stress release”.

There are two parts to this. First, you need to sustain yourself through the war, not just the battle, or as Tim calls this “Adjust your executive athlete program to look after your mental and physical health”. This is not at all selfish. You are human and you need to eat, sleep, relax and exercise better so after a week, month, two months or more, you are seen by your people not just surviving, but striving! They will follow your example. This goes to your psychological health as well, where he recommends “developing a trusted network to share frustrations and fears and vent if necessary”. Coaches, mentors and buddies are not just for junior leaders, executives and senior leaders need them too.

“Adjust your executive athlete program to look after your mental and physical health”

These are the key personal elements required when leading through crises, but as Tim cautions, “there is a lot more to this [including] building teams, analysing data, decision making processes, communication and many more areas are critical at times like this”. But it all starts with you as the leader. After all, if you can’t lead yourself, how can you lead others in crises? As Tim shares his key pieces of advice for leading in crises, he humbly admits that there are many more lessons that he could draw from his personal reflections on when he did and did not do well.

“Titiro whakamuri, kokiri whakamua – look back and reflect in order to move forward”

Leadership is a journey.

In that sentence, lies my final reflection on my engagement with Tim and the final point to take away from this article – leaders reflect and learn. As the Maori whakatauki (proverb) goes – titiro whakamuri, kokiri whakamua – look back and reflect in order to move forward. Leadership is a journey, of learning and adapting.

COVID-19 will end, not immediately, but eventually, until the next crisis emerges. We need to learn from leaders who have led through crises, from what they did do well and the lessons they share. The world is not going to get any less complex, neither is leadership!


I would like to acknowledge Lieutenant General (Retired) Tim Keating, MNZM, for sharing his leadership advice for this article and for lessons I learned working for him and watching him lead.