Building trust: Four ways to lead in a crisis

We are in a crisis that most of us have never seen before. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in many lives. Friends and family members have died, jobs have been lost and businesses have been forced to shut—there are high levels of mental stress around us. I recall a session we had in 2019 with Daniel Diermeier, the former Provost at The University of Chicago and current Chancellor at Vanderbilt University. Daniel is an expert in crisis management and he ended the session by saying that crises give leaders the opportunity to stand out and become legends.

He talked about the importance of trust and described the four components of his trust radar. These four components are important for leaders to follow in a crisis–whether you are the leader of a nation, a leader of a business, a leader of a school or a leader of a bunch of friends.

Transparency – This is not the time to spin the yarn. People want to know what is happening. Transparency does not mean full disclosure instead it is about letting people feel that you are not hiding anything. Sometimes you cannot talk freely because of liability concerns and so on, but that doesn’t mean you should not sound authentic when communicating.

Expertise – People trust certain leaders because they believe they can handle situations. The leader’s expertise is their comfort zone. Hence in a crisis, leaders should speak with confidence to reassure others that they are in charge. They need to react fast and make others believe that they know what to do.

Commitment – Leaders need to demonstrate that they are committed to solving the problem—whatever it takes. The most effective way to show commitment is to be highly visible. Leaders do not run away during a crisis. You can take a personal approach by talking to the team or calling up key customers. You need to establish a process to handle the crisis, for example, set up a task force that meets regularly.

Empathy – Leaders need to wear their hearts on their sleeves at such times. Their underlying message has to be ‘I know what you are feeling and I am responding.’ Authenticity is very important. This is not the time for mere apologies. Ratan Tata became the hero during the terrorist attack in Mumbai because he cared for the victims.

We do not know when the Covid-19 deaths will end. We do not know when the vaccines will be easily available. We do not know when new jobs will open up at large scales. But leaders can focus on what is in their control and by using the trust radar, help their teams keep calm.

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