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Vol. 46, No. 3

How to lead your team through a global crisis

What does leadership in a global pandemic look and feel like, and how can you lift your own leadership style a level higher?

By Jordan Furlong

This article first appeared in Law Practice Magazine, a publication from the ABA Law Practice Division. It is reprinted here with permission from the ABA Copyright department. 

Countless books and articles tell you all about business leadership in normal times. There are fewer such resources about leadership during a crisis, and those usually deal with a crisis inside a single company or industry. But there are no books or articles about how to exercise leadership in a worldwide pandemic and global economic breakdown—or, at least, that was the case when this article was written this summer. No doubt, by the date of publication, there will be a business bestseller or two on the subject.

But while the opportunity to be first out of the gate has now passed, the need for crisis leadership assuredly has not. A more severe “second wave” of COVID-19 (assuming we’ve gotten past the first wave by now) could crest this winter. Lockdowns could be reinstated; public-health systems could fall into disarray.

If now seems like a strange time to be talking about something as relatively trivial as leadership, I disagree. Crises and emergencies are precisely when leadership is needed most—indeed, throughout the first three months of this crisis, it was colossal failures of political leadership that have made an already bad situation unbelievably worse.

It will take great leadership to help us navigate the rest of our way through this dire threat to public health and safety. That applies as much to law practices, legal businesses and lawyer organizations as it does to our political and medical institutions. People need legal remedies; our society needs rule-of-law reassurance.

Let me be more specific: It’s going to be your leadership that will help make or break the legal system’s response to the pandemic. No matter what role you play in your legal organization, you are being called upon to exercise leadership as we try to navigate through these completely uncharted waters.

If you happen to own or operate a law practice, or occupy a senior or authoritative position inside a legal organization, that obligation is heightened. If you have not already stepped into the breach, that’s what we need you to do. If you already have stepped up, we need you to take it a level higher.

In this article, I’m going to describe what leadership looks and feels like during an epochal event, like a global pandemic, and provide you with some suggestions for either incorporating leadership into your daily activities or further enhancing the leadership that you have already demonstrated.

The Look of Leadership

I’ll preface these remarks by dispensing with some antiquated notions and telling you what leadership isn’t about. It’s not about “rallying the troops” or looking tough or reading from carefully scripted remarks full of tired platitudes. If your idea of leadership summons up images of a man in a suit or a uniform standing at a podium holding a sheaf of papers, discard it now.

Here’s what leadership in a global emergency does look like.

It’s Steady

Above all, crisis leadership is about steadiness, firmness and dependability. A leader has enough genuine self-possession and quiet confidence to feel grounded despite the emergency. She knows herself and is comfortable with who she is, and she outwardly projects that sense of stability to everyone around her.

Steady does not necessarily mean calm—leaders often need to be animated and emotional, and a preternatural calm can give the impression of not caring or not “getting it.” Steadiness is different. It’s the ability to convey a sense of your inherent reliability and authority and thereby encourage calmness in others.

People are naturally upset and frightened during a crisis, and they seek out steadiness the way passengers on a ship in rough seas grab for a pillar or mast. If someone makes you feel less anxious simply by virtue of her presence and demeanor, she has succeeded in the first job of leadership.

It’s Fact-Based

Nothing lends authority and reliability better than cold, hard facts. Leaders want to know what’s really going on so that they can make the best decisions possible under the circumstances. This rarely means “all the facts,” which just aren’t available in emergencies—decisions must be made with the best information at hand.

Equally important to good leadership is a willingness to change one’s mind when the facts change, as they certainly will. You know more about COVID-19 today than the best scientific minds deduced in June. You also know more today than you did six months ago about which of your clients will survive the recession, and your business strategy has evolved accordingly.

Leaders change course when reality dictates they should. They make no apology for it, and they don’t second-guess the calls they made with the information they possessed. A leader’s open reliance on facts inspires far more trust and loyalty than the fieriest of speeches.

It’s Empathetic

A true leader can imagine the crisis and sense the impact of the emergency from the perspective of other people, and she can express her sympathy and solidarity—but without pretending to have experienced those traumas herself.

Four words leaders shouldn’t say in a crisis: “I feel your pain.” Five words they shouldn’t say: “We’re all in this together.” Leaders try their best to minimize platitudes.

Leaders who make it all about themselves encourage others to do exactly the same, but empathy is humble. It places the welfare of other people above one’s own interests and concerns and thereby sets a better example for others to follow. Empathy normalizes the practice of caring about how those around you are doing.

Empathy for others also has a powerful side benefit: It protects the leader from narcissism, a constant danger to those in authority. Nobody wants to hear about how hard the leader has it, because they’ve got it as bad or probably worse. They want to know how the leader will make it better.

It’s Goal-Oriented

Just as important as showing a steady hand on the tiller is being clear and explicit about exactly where the vessel is headed. The magnitude of impact of an epochal, turning-point crisis like this shatters everyone’s existing plans, leaving a void where one’s sense of direction and purpose used to be.

A leader steps into that void to offer a new purpose and a new destination. These don’t need to be the ultimate goal and final destination—in an emergency of this scale and complexity, those probably aren’t in sight anyway. But the purpose and destination need to be safe points, not too daunting or far away, that the listener can reach by doing one or two simple things.

A good leader will also give people the tools (or directions to find the tools) with which they can set and meet their own goals for progress through the crisis. Everyone is going to deal with this situation differently. Leadership in a crisis demands that everyone do something but allows it to be at each person’s own pace and in their own time.

It’s Forthright

Leadership during a global crisis of unknown dimension and duration is an incredibly difficult job. But obfuscation and equivocation make it much harder. If you hedge or stall or give people the runaround, they’re likelier to believe that things are actually worse than they’re being told or that the whole truth is being hidden from them.

A good leader is forthright. She tells people the truth—as best as she can perceive it, based on the facts at hand—and what its implications are. Her honesty is the key to her legitimacy, which, in turn, is the foundation of people’s willingness to place their trust in her and follow her lead.

But forthrightness does not mean complete transparency. There are often very good reasons not to share every detail of the situation, both because too much detail confuses people in a crisis and because the worst projections can incite panic. Frightening people into following should be a leader’s very last resort.

Leadership in Action

So how do you, or someone in your organization, demonstrate this type of leadership in these extraordinary times? Well, the short answer is: Be honest with people, inform yourself as well as you can, figure out a reasonable goal for your organization to meet, look out for the welfare of those around you, and be steadfast and reliable in the crunch.

But we can expand usefully on that. Here are seven suggestions, specifically tailored to law firm environments, that assume you’re going through some of the worst stages of the COVID-19 pandemic or a related crisis, and that therefore the need for strong leadership is now more vital than at any point in recent memory.

1. Follow the directions of health authorities.

Leadership in a pandemic requires putting your faith in the best advice offered by the relevant public health authorities in your jurisdiction. Unless you have exceptionally good reason to believe that these individuals are misinformed or mendacious, listen to what they say and adapt their guidance into your activities.

2. You run a virtual law firm now. Assuming you haven’t already placed all your firm’s data and files in the cloud and set up all your people to work wherever they feel safe, do it now. Your physical offices are almost certainly a health hazard, unless more recent science suggests that indoor locations with recirculating air where people talk all day long are not, in fact, coronavirus petri dishes.

3. Connect with your people as often as you can. Contact everyone in your organization, within reason, once every two weeks, more often if possible. “Management by walking around” is now “leadership by videoconference call.” Ask people how they are and listen. Ask them what they’re doing to help out and commend them for it. Ask them what you can do for them and do it.

4. Getting paid is essential. There has probably been no shortage of legal work throughout this pandemic; the shortage resides in clients’ ability or willingness to divert their limited funds to pay their lawyers. You owe it to your business and your people to minimize the amount of work you accept without a guarantee or substantial prospect of prompt payment. Be steely eyed here.

5. Find ways to help the community. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you still can and should fulfill your professional and moral obligations to render aid to your neighborhood, town or city through donations to the needy, provision of pro bono legal services or both. Ensure that after the pandemic eases, your firm is remembered for answering the call and standing as a pillar of its community.

6. Put people ahead of your business. This is very tough advice to give anyone who’s worked hard to build and sustain a law practice. But businesses can be rebuilt, and client relationships can be forged anew. People can’t be replaced. If you face a choice between placing someone (including yourself) in medical peril or risking your firm’s continued existence, it’s no contest. Lives come first.

7. Stay positive. In the teeth of a generational crisis, this might sound a little ridiculous. But you can be realistic about the immensity and seriousness of our challenge and still adopt a positive mindset about achieving your day-today goals. That kind of equanimity has an enormous impact on those around you. Google “Stockdale Paradox” to learn more. Optimism is now a strategic asset.

Leadership for Life

During a crisis, there are some people who walk into the room and it feels like the temperature rises, anxiety levels spike and heartbeats race. And then there are other people who can walk into the room and all these gauges stabilize and start to go down. These people have a calming effect—not because they’re calm themselves, necessarily, but because there’s a solidity, reassurance and confidence in their presence.

A great way to start your process of leading through a crisis is to pause and reflect on people like that in your past—people who inspired you during an emergency or even just during a difficult time. It might have been a direct supervisor or boss or maybe a managing partner, company president or department head. It could even have been a colleague.

Think about how that person conducted herself throughout that period of tribulation. What was her daily demeanor like? How did she treat people around her, especially those in a subordinate role or who reported to her? What sort of pace and mood did she set? Where did it seem like her priorities lay? How did the whole experience of working with or near her make you feel?

Leadership in any circumstance, and especially in a crisis, is really about making other people feel better about the overall situation and about their own ability to make their way through it. This is the sense in which leadership is “inspirational.” It makes people feel more capable, more in control and more confident that a path forward exists—and they will find it.

In a crisis, people can easily become overwhelmed with worry. The disruption to their daily routines throws them off badly; the specter of something awful happening to them or their family saps them of energy; the prospect of losing their jobs and livelihoods terrifies them. They had control over their world, but the crisis yanked that control away and replaced it with noise and uncertainty.

A great leader doesn’t give people something they didn’t already have. A great leader helps people recover what they already had—to restore their sense of order, to uncover their overlooked assets, to remember their forgotten skills. People revere great leaders in a crisis precisely because, in the leader’s presence, they can block out the noise and chaos and be themselves again.

Strive to be a leader who helps people get back up off the canvas after the emergency has knocked them down. No matter how bad it gets out there, communicate to them, through your own confidence and strength of character, that they will each get through this individually and that you will all get through this together.

We need leaders like that right now, and we will probably need them for some time yet. Become one today.

Jordan Furlong

Legal Market Analyst

Jordan Furlong is a legal market analyst who advises legal organizations about the new legal world and provides them with strategic guidance to chart a way forward. He writes regularly about the legal sector at Email [email protected]