It’s a challenging time for leaders of all shapes and styles. We’re currently in the midst of a global pandemic, and our teams are looking to us for guidance. This is the very essence of leadership, but it’s not something any of us were really prepared for. So we’re all feeling our way forwards as best as possible.

The immediate temptation is to react. To fire out some missive to the team, letting them know that everything is going to be okay, even if we’re not sure of that ourselves. The next temptation is to jump into planning mode. To start running scenarios. What happens if project X gets pulled; what happens if we lose client Y?

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. It’s an important part of leadership — to project a sense of confidence and solidarity in situations of high uncertainty. “We’re all going to get through this together. We have a plan. Here’s how.”

However, before rushing to action it’s worth taking a breath, taking stock of the situations, and being aware of both the signals you’re currently receiving, as well as the signals you may be giving off to others.

Cultivate equanimity

In the poem “If” Rudyard Kipling talks about the importance of “keeping one’s head” in tricky situations. What Kipling is essentially describing is the concept of equanimity. The state of psychological safety and composure that prevents leaders — and the teams they lead — from losing their balance and coming unstuck.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

Rudyard Kipling, English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist

One way to help cultivate equanimity is to stop, breathe, and survey the surroundings. Otherwise you risk succumbing to emotional group think, or worse — panic. Everybody’s perspective reinforces everybody else’s, and you miss an important signal or overreact.

So as a leader, it’s now more important than ever to be scanning the horizon, connecting with your network, searching for patterns, and assessing the path ahead. Because the signals you’re receiving may be different to the signals others are receiving. So it’s important to do a mental sense check.

Assess the situation and use the info to inform your planning

An easy way to do this is to simply drop a few friends in other companies a line to see how they’re getting on. Are folk worried about projects being stalled, clients dropping out, or companies being forced to restructure? If so, what are they seeing in the market, and how big an effect do they think it will have?

If you’re a member of an online community like the Leading Design Slack, a community of 1,500 senior design leaders I’ve been running the past five years, it’s worth reaching out to them as well. Take a temperature check and see what folks are saying — or not saying — in the various channels and threads. Maybe shoot off some questions of your own, fire up a poll, or suggest a group chat.

If you’re not a member of one of these communities, look to Twitter and Medium and start sifting the data. It may not give you any clear answers, but having a broader perspective is definitely helpful.

For instance, as soon as news of the lockdown hit, I started reading articles about the likely effect it would have on the design industry, and the broader economy, and what agency leaders could do in response. I also threw together a quick survey on an agency founders Slack community I run, to gauge what others were thinking.

Screenshot of Blair Enns' article 'Three Steps to Surviving and Thriving in a Crisis', published on
In this article, Blair Enns, CEO of pricing training business Win Without Pitching, covers securing revenue in the short term and adjusting to the new reality.

While some business owners said they were expecting things to get back to normal by September, the vast majority were looking at Christmas and beyond. This greatly helped with my own scenario planning as it corroborated the signals I’d been picking up. I also asked these business leaders what affect the current lockdown and resulting downturn would have on their business. I was expecting folks to be pessimistic, and while a few thought it could affect income by as much as 50 percent, the majority of owners felt it would be between 10 to 20 percent. A challenging drop, but not a catastrophic one.

Having input from a variety of sources allowed me to calibrate my own beliefs, and go into meetings with more confidence in the situation, and the ability to make more reasoned and measured decisions. Something all good leaders need to be able to do.

Examine the signals you’re sending out to your team

Another thing you need to be aware of as a leader are the, often unconscious, signals you’re broadcasting to others. Your team will obviously be worried. They’ve watched the news. They’ve seen the figures. They know an economic depression is approaching. So they’re probably wondering how things are going to play out for them. Will staff be furloughed? Will there be a round of redundancies in the future, and are they potentially in the firing line?

In this context, even small, subconscious signals are likely to get misinterpreted. That extra-long meeting you’ve been in with the executive team. Was that just a normal meeting, or are they discussing lay-offs? That 1:1 you just missed. Was it just because you were super busy, or was it an indication that the person was on the chopping block? These questions may seem irrational at first, but everybody is on edge, and looking for their own signals to interpret — or potentially misinterpret.

In these situations it’s important to be clear and over-communicate as much as possible. This can come in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as repeating your message, and then repeating it again. It takes time for a new message to sink in under normal circumstances. This is compounded in a time of crisis, when your team members are distracted and only about a quarter of what you say actually sinks in. Repetition also creates a sense of certainty if done over time. The thing you told the company last week about pulling through this without redundancies is the same thing you said at the Monday morning stand-up, Friday afternoon drinks, and the various 1:1s you’ve had. This sense of certainty is accentuated if the things you’re saying to your team in private are replicated in public.

This leads nicely on to the next tactic, which is to up the frequency of your communications in general. With things potentially changing very rapidly, it may be worth moving those quarterly board meetings to monthly or even weekly. Similarly, it may be worth moving your weekly stand-up to daily.

Clearleft team members are getting used to interacting with each other via Zoom.
Clearleft team members are getting used to interacting with each other via Zoom.

Be open and honest and also monitor your team’s signals

Being aware of the signals the rest of your team are putting out also becomes super important. Are folks struggling, and how would you know? Especially if they’re heads down in work, and no longer physically visible because they’re working from home. As a leader you can no longer “walk the floor” or loiter in the kitchen to get a gauge of sentiment. So you may need to manufacture interactions to get a sense of how everybody is doing. You also need to understand what’s a normal and reasonable level of stress in the current situation, and what needs addressing.

Of course it helps if you’re honest with your feelings as well. So while it’s important to project a sense of confidence and continuity, it’s also important to set an example and be willing to show vulnerability. Otherwise it’s super easy for folks to misinterpret your stoicism for something else. Did you just snap at somebody because they did something wrong, or just because you’re having a stressful day due to increased parental pressure? Were you overly curt with somebody because you’re super busy, or could there be something else going on here?

To avoid missed signals and crossed wires, It’s best to be as open and honest as possible, even if that means oversharing slightly.

Don’t neglect your own mental health

Of course you could be feeling stressed because you suddenly have some difficult decisions to make. So if you do find yourself in conversations about cost savings and restructuring, don’t be too hard on yourself. While it’s one of the worst parts of leadership, it’s also a super necessary one. You’re trying to keep your company going in challenging times, and support as many people as possible. This isn’t personal, and you’re not a bad person, so go easy on yourself.

As with any challenging work situation, it’s always a good idea to get some external perspective where possible. That could be a friend or a loved one. Or it could be a mentor or coach. Somebody who can give you an objective opinion, and help you chat your way through these challenging waters. It’s even better if it’s somebody who has had to go through this process before, understand where you’re coming from, and can offer practical advice and support.

If you are finding yourself in a stressful situation, it’s tempting to try and force your way through it. However, doing so usually means working longer hours, eating poorly, cutting down on exercise, and not taking rests. This is the fastest way to burn-out, or worse. So it’s important you make time for yourself. If you’re new to remote working, work out a rest and exercise schedule, and stick with it. If yoga or meditations is your thing, carve out time in your day to help rebalance yourself.

This may sound frivolous, especially in the midst of a global crisis. However, self-care is important. Because if you don’t look after your own health and mental wellbeing during challenging times, how are you going to be there for others? So make sure you create the necessary space, carve out a routine, and remember to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.