What Leaders Do when Times are Scary


This morning, I received two emails at the same time – around 6:30 am. One was from Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta Airlines. The second was from Ryan Green, an SVP at Southwest Airlines. (Interestingly, I didn’t receive a comparable email from the airline I fly the most.)

Both of these leaders were writing to tell me what their companies are doing to respond to the coronavirus threat. They need to. Airlines are going to take a hit until the threat of transmission goes away. On the one hand, their message doesn’t apply to me – I began curtailing my travel two weeks ago. On the other hand, it does apply to me. My daughter is flying to Atlanta this morning.

Emails from these two leaders came just as I was digesting all the other news of the morning –the spread of the virus, the threat of more drastic containment measures by country leaders, more people self-quarantining, the Saudi’s taking on the Russians over oil, and the resulting disruption in the financial markets. These events can add up to being pretty scary.

And they prompt me to remember the role leaders need to play in times of crisis. In short, communication + facts.

  1. Get the facts. Good leaders take the time and do the work to get smart on the situation. Poor leaders sew distrust when they make off-hand remarks laced with their opinions.
  2. Communicate the truth. Good leaders are proactive, consistent and factual with their communication. Poor leaders are reactive and wait, hoping things will get better.

My friend Yasser Youssef is President of The Budd Group, which, among other things, provides janitorial services to companies throughout the southeast. You think they and their clients might need to pay attention to the coronavirus? Two weeks ago, Yasser convened a webinar in which he connected his clients and his leaders with an epidemiologist specializing in infection prevention. Among other information, this expert brought greater clarity on the difference between “cleaning” and “disinfecting,” and clients changed their janitorial protocols immediately. Yasser provides a great example of a leader proactively seeking facts and then communicating them to the people who need them most.

Leaders, you don’t need me to tell you the most prevalent emotion with this coronavirus is fear. We fear what we don’t know or understand. I refer to fear as “an emotion of the head” – because it is in our heads that we imagine all that could go wrong, all the different scenarios that threaten us.

This open-ended fear is why it is so important leaders proactively communicate with facts. Calm clear communication helps clear and calm the minds of those being led.

So my dual challenge to leaders in these challenging days: What additional fact-gathering do you need to pursue? And how do you need to communicate with those who call you their leader?