Dr. Duane Helleloid Shares Key Ideas to Guide Leaders Through this Crisis

Our UND Nistler College of Business & Public Administration faculty continue to be leading experts in crisis. We look forward to sharing some of their insights on how to practice leadership during a crisis.

UND Chair and Professor for the School of Entrepreneurship and Management, Dr. Duane Helleloid shares his thoughts below on a few key ideas to guide leaders through this crisis.

Dr. Duane Helleloid

Some leaders can turn any situation into a crisis, and then attempt to show what a great leader they are by getting everyone out of the crisis. Other leaders use foresight and keep anything from becoming a crisis, and many people never know that a crisis was averted.

The situation most of us find ourselves in now involves a crisis at a scale that few saw coming, and many leaders tried to downplay or minimize because they had no clear plans for what to do. Today, however, everyone is impacted one way or another, and how a leader responds says a great deal about their leadership. It will also influence how much others trust the leader to get them through the crisis.

While this is uncharted territory for most of us, here are a few key ideas to guide leaders through this crisis.

1. Don’t over promise, because we don’t know what is going to happen next. It may be comforting to say this will all be over in two weeks, or that the current round of cutting twenty percent of the workforce will be the only cuts needed, but there is no way of knowing. Even “best guesses” such as these are best left unsaid, for so much is unknown. If two weeks from now it is not over, and another 200 locations need to be closed or another thirty percent of the workforce has to be let go, a leader’s credibility will be immeasurably harmed. Maintaining credibility is essential, and it is best to not make promises that may not be reasonably fulfilled.

2. Empower people to think creatively and seek out new ideas when sailing in uncharted waters. Figuring out what to do next is a shared responsibility, for which no one person has the answers. While there is some research to suggest that in times of crisis a leader needs to be decisive and directive, and others need to follow orders, that may hold true when military commanders unexpectedly find their unit under fire. But our current situation is different in that most leaders have not been trained for dealing with the circumstances we face today, unlike military commanders. Being overly directive and micro-managing will cause others to simply quietly (or grumblingly) follow orders, and stop thinking about or communicating ideas that could help the entire organization.

3. Projecting calm and confidence is key to maintaining trust. The leader who runs around trying to fix everything and put out fires is likely to cause many new fires. When FDR gave his radio broadcasts during the depression, and Churchill talked to Britain during WWII, both inspired confidence by indicating that while it would be hard, the country and the people would survive. These broadcasts were carefully timed and choreographed so that every day did not appear to involve a new crisis, but rather that the leaders had the situation under control. And most citizens believed that they did.

4. In order to effectively lead, a leader first needs to take care of themselves. If family or personal matters are becoming unraveled, those need to be addressed or they may undermine the leader’s ability to effectively lead others.

In this time of crisis, where no one can predict with any accuracy where the economy, the health care system, nor the mortality level will be in four or ten months, we don’t expect our leaders to have all the answers. But we can hope that they inspire confidence and empower those around them to help find a path forward.

By: Dr. Duane Helleloid, Professor and Chair of the School of Entrepreneurship and Management and Pancratz Faculty Fellow