The Best Way to Lead During a Crisis

July 21, 2016, 2:08 PM UTC
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Illustration by erhui1979 — Getty Images

The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Enrique Conterno, president of Lilly Diabetes, has answered the question: How do you lead a company through a crisis?

Whether we like it or not, part of business—and, frankly, part of life—is dealing with crises. Large and small companies alike go through difficult periods, some of which put their futures at stake. Government leaders routinely deal with crises, such as deadly hurricanes, devastating wildfires, and terrorist attacks. And, unfortunately, people experience crises periodically in their own lives and homes.

Regardless of the nature of a crisis, the people who endure it all have a common need: strong leadership.

With strong leadership—which includes everything from thoughtful guidance to making key decisions—your organization has a better chance of overcoming a crisis. In fact, if it’s handled well, you and your team could exit the crisis stronger than ever.

After three decades in the business world, I’ve seen and experienced my share of crises. Five years ago, Lilly (LLY) was sued by a business partner after we entered into a separate alliance with another company (a few months later, we mutually ended the relationship). That was a difficult period for our entire organization. Significant change, uncertainty, and conflict made employees uneasy—potentially derailing other important work. Fortunately, we were able to successfully manage that difficult stretch.

I believe there are three characteristics that help a leader during a crisis:

Be confident
In a crisis, some breaks will go your way. Other times, you’ll feel as though you’re on the brink of disaster. When that happens, it’s natural to feel disappointed, but you need to deliver honest updates to your team while outlining a confident path forward. The audio and video need to match. When we were sued by our partner, the news went public a few minutes before I was scheduled to address 3,000 people at a company sales force meeting. It was too soon to have meaningful answers to the questions I might face, but ignoring the elephant in the room would have been counterproductive. I briefed the team and confidently told them, “We’ll figure this out.” My take-home message: that we’d work hard to overcome it—and we did.

Be decisive
When it comes to decision-making, you need to be thoughtful but also decisive. Your experience and instincts, along with the right counsel from people around you, will lead to the right decisions. Don’t spend time second-guessing yourself and re-visiting decisions that have already been made. If there’s an important shift in the environment, change course as appropriate. Otherwise, stick with what you know is right.


Be visible
Teams managing a crisis have a tendency to meet behind closed doors for days at a time. And while certain discussions require confidentiality, you should still be visible to your employees. Your presence will send a profound message: Everything is under control. Make yourself visible by holding non-confidential meetings in open spaces. And be sure to balance crisis management with running the rest of the business. As a leader, you have many responsibilities. Don’t let the crisis consume you.

During a crisis, you need to create a sense of calm. People aren’t always at their best when under considerable stress, but you can set the tone with your own behaviors. Finally, take care of yourself. People sometimes allow a crisis to take over their lives as they forfeit family time, meals, and exercise. Such decisions may feel heroic in the moment, but they aren’t good for you or the business. Attempt to maintain balance in your life—you’ll be a stronger leader for it.