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Navigating Rough Waters: 4 Ways To Lead Your Team Through Them

Warwick Fairfax

June 16, 2020

A crisis is the ultimate test of your leadership and your character, in particular in your ability to maintain the cohesion of your team.  A crisis can be a bit like a centrifuge, which tends to push people away, and dissipate team unity.  Whether the team drifts apart or comes together is largely dependent on you, the leader.

We are currently in a health and economic crisis with the coronavirus in much of the world.  Additionally, in the U.S. and now in other countries, there are widespread protests over the brutal treatment of an African American man, George Floyd, who was killed while being arrested by police.  Concerns about racial injustice is an issue that permeates not just cities and states, but also organizations.

Crises can cause division, be it on racial or ethnic lines, political philosophy or just on what is the best course of action.  Some people on your team may believe they know what should be done, often with different plans than you, or they may be fearful and believe that the situation is hopeless.

The job of a leader is to bring calm and to keep the team united and moving forward.  Let’s not dwell on the past and how we got here, unless it is germane to figuring out how to proceed. Instead, let’s focus on what we should do next.  How can we stay together during this crisis and find our way out of here?

A great example of a leader bringing his team together in a crisis is Ernest Shackleton the British leader of a polar expedition to Antarctica more than 100 years ago.  In 1915 Shackleton’s ship was trapped in pack ice.  By November of that year, the ice was crushing the ship and the ship sank.  Shackleton’s original mission had been to cross Antarctica.  His new mission was the survival of his team.

What made moving on from the original mission hard was that Shackleton had gotten his team in this life-threatening mess due to some poor decision-making. He decided to sail south for Antarctica when he was advised that the ice floes were particularly widespread at the time, and to proceed would be very risky.  How did Shackleton get his team home?  We unpack his remarkable story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable crucibles in an upcoming two-part Beyond the Crucible podcast with Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who wrote the book Forged in Crisis, in which Shackleton is one of the featured leaders.

In the current climate you are in, you might be struggling to keep your business afloat, or your restaurant open.  Your crisis might not threaten your life or the life of your team as it did with Ernest Shackleton, but it might be very dire to you in different but very real ways.

How do you get your team through a crisis?

1. Take Responsibility

The crisis might be your fault or it may not be.  You are the leader.  You may feel calm or more likely you may feel terrified and out of your depth.  While transparency is often a good thing, in this scenario you need to project calm and that there is a way out.  You need to project the belief that survival for your organization and your team is not only possible, but that it will happen.

2. Maintain Inner Health

For you to be able to project the aura of calm, authoritative leadership, you have to do the inner work.  In an earlier blog we spoke of how to maintain calm amid fear.  We mentioned several tools, be it reflection (prayer or meditation for instance), a walk in nature, listening to music, spending time with loved ones.  If you are fortunate enough to have mentors or trusted colleagues outside of your team, they can be a great source of encouragement.

3. Make a Positive Step Forward

Each day or at regular intervals, make one positive step forward.  Each small win builds morale in the team.  It makes the seemingly impossible, feel just a bit more possible.  A series of small wins can add up to considerable progress.  Like the flywheel, the more progress you make a bit at a time, can make the energy and enthusiasm of the team grow and can make the progress of the team grow.

4. Be the Engine of Hope

You have to believe!  You have to make the team believe that survival and getting out of the mess you are in, is possible.  Every day, you have to provide hope.  You have to channel your inner Franklin Roosevelt or your inner Winston Churchill.  During President Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933 in the depth of the Great Depression, he said that “the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.”  Prime Minister Churchill gave a speech to the British Parliament in June 1940, when Britain seemed to be virtually alone against the might of Nazi Germany that was preparing to invade Britain.  In this speech, Churchill said, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

While few of us are facing crises at the levels Roosevelt or Churchill faced, and we might think we are not even close to being the kind of leader each of them was, look at what they did.  At its heart, they gave their people, their teams, hope.  That hope moved mountains.  We need to be “dealers in hope,” as another famous leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, once said.

There are other important things you have to do to make a team successful in a crisis, that include good communication and ensuring that each team member knows their role.  It is important to encourage the team daily, including conversations of hope and encouragement with each team member.  You need to pay attention to team members that may be more difficult, be it because of skepticism about whether “survival” is possible or just because they may be difficult for some to get on with.

Always remember, in a crisis, team divisions are exacerbated.  The management of the team, team communications, team member roles are definitely important.  But the leadership of the team by you as the leader is paramount.  Inspiring hope, even when you are filled with fear, and helping your team take one more step, are the keys to not just survival but to achieving success amidst almost certain defeat.


  • Have you taken responsibility for the crisis you are in, and how are you moving beyond it?
  • What positive steps forward are you taking each day?
  • Are you the engine of hope for your team in the crisis, and if not, what ways can you show that not just survival but success is possible?
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