Effective Crisis Leadership During COVID-19

Effective Crisis Leadership During COVID-19

By Bob VandePol, MSW

Businesswoman teleconferencing from homeCOVID 19. Deadly pandemic? Media-fueled hysteria?

Both blind denial and conspiracy theories abound in every conversation, but all eyes are looking to leadership to define the course of action. Your response will reverberate through your organization as people take their cue from what they see and hear from you.

Of course, you will be instantly criticized regardless of your decisions and, frankly, you cannot control those responses. You CAN control how you lead and that will stand the test of time.

The Pine Rest Employee Assistance Program recommends the following crisis communication process – ACT.

A – Acknowledge the issue and its impact upon people.

In this unique situation it is wise to acknowledge the fact that so much is currently unknown and that widely different opinions exist.

  • Acknowledge that it is also difficult for you to determine the course of action but that you wish to do so according to the best information available and to protect those you lead and their families.
  • Acknowledge also the impact upon your organization’s operations.
  • Use the real words so that there is no sense you are self-protectively minimizing and “sweeping the issue under the rug.”
  • Do so seriously but avoid sensationalized language. People may already be anxious and you do not want to incite greater fear.


C – Communicate pertinent information with both competence and compassion.

Use language such as “This is what we know at this time….” and provide access to credible expert sources such as the CDC which provides situation updates, answers to frequently asked questions, and printable and video resources.

When anxious themselves, leaders tend to polarize toward either competence or compassion. You need to be both simultaneously. Those looking to you must witness someone who is concerned but not panicked and who has the strength to learn and implement best practices specific to this threat.

This issue is highly personal as people will be visualizing threats to their loved ones, so make certain to also be compassionate. You want people to experience your presence as “My leader knows her/his stuff, is tough enough to handle it, and cares about me as a person.”


T —Transition to a future focus.

Do not just share information without outlining immediate next steps. Immediate next steps. Do we resume operations now? Cancel events and travel? Work from home? How will internal updates be communicated? How and what do we communicate with all external stakeholders? Who are those external stakeholders and what specific information needs to go to each?


Your people will forget about many of the days you share together … But not these days.

Worst case scenario from the virus:

They will remember your compassion for them, and your competent efforts to protect what you share.

Best case scenario from the virus:

They will chuckle and remind you often. But they will also remember your compassion for them and your competent efforts to protect what you share.

Lead well!

Bob VandePolBob VandePol, MSW serves as Executive Director for the Pine Rest Employee and Church Assistance Programs which provides Critical Incident Response services to business, organizations, schools and universities as well as faith communities.

Mr. VandePol is a member of the Workplace Task Force Active of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership championing suicide prevention as a national priority.

Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7548 or bob.vandepol@pinerest.org

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