ABC for leadership in times of crises

21 april 2020 – by Ingrid van Zutphen, Managing Consultant Development


‘You can’t change the wind, but you can adjust the sails.’ Whether you agree with the decisions of the Dutch government or not, they show incredible flexibility and adaptability during this crisis. The Dutch government follows a clear direction (‘flatten the curve’) and adjusts the sails continuously: the minister of Medical Care resigns and within a day there is a solution. Intensive Care capacity falls short, within a week the capacity had doubled. With 50% of the information, they take 100% of the decisions. Crises demand flexibility and adaptability from everyone. And as a leader you set the example. You are the captain of the ship. You dertermine the direction and adjust the sails. That’s your job.

Be reliable

In turbulent times we all need something to rely on. For you as a leader to be reliable means: do what you say, say what you are doing and don’t say things you cannot realise. Don’t make well-intended but empty promises like: ‘I feel so sorry for you, but I am sure things will be better soon.’ Or: ‘Don’t worry, I am sure you can do this!’ Although well intended, these reactions do not lead to the desired effect. When you have limited influence on the outcome, don’t say that you are sure ’things will get better soon’. These empty promises don’t help the other person and it makes you unreliable.

But what does help?

The American research professor Brené Brown ( University of Houston) makes a difference between Sympathy and Empathy. With a sympathetic reaction we try to take away someone’s discomfort by silverlining it. But unfortunately sympathy drives disconnection. What fuels connection is empathy. Empathy is feeling with people, without silver lining or taking away by a response. Only connection can soften it.

Reacting with empathy is difficult. To react with empathy you have to recognize emotions in others, and connect with your own emotions. An empathetic reaction could be: ‘I recognize this is a tough situation which makes you insecure. That’s OK. I have confidence in you doing the right things. And if you want to, we can think together about the next steps’. An empathetic reaction makes you reliable.


Ellen Coopmans (CHRO says in an interview with ManagementSite: ‘I call and Skype much more nowadays. I show myself and discuss much more than usually. As a leader in periods of crisis you have to be visible and stay in contact with your team’. In prehistoric times people lived in tribes to survive. In modern times, colleagues are our tribe-members. And in turbulent times we want to know that we belong to the tribe. We want to know that other tribe members also feel scared or angry. That others also feel the urge to share, laugh and have some fun together. By connecting with your tribe, you as a leader show that everybody belongs to the tribe. And you set the example. Not an example of you knowing it all. But an example of humanity, with all the feelings, discomfort and insecurities that come with being human.

And, as a bonus, I’ll also give you an alternative C:

Communicate Clear & Concise

Don’t use container words like ‘agile’, ‘ownership’, ‘learning organisation’, or ‘client mindedness’, but communicate in normal language: clear & concise.

On behalf of the CPM-team,
Marion Neefe, Managing Director CPM-Nederland