How to Adjust Your Leadership During the COVID-19 Crisis




Joseph Shaffner, North Rock Leadership and

Jake Ross, Organizational Consultant and Researcher, Udarta Consulting


September 2020



Everyone is struggling with the challenges that COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our way. This unprecedented situation presents a tremendous challenge for leaders who are already maxed-out and are now being asked to do more and maintain “business as usual,” adding to their stress and subsequent ability to lead people who are also under stress.


This article provides some insights and ideas to implement to try keep teams healthy, engaged, and productive during this unprecedented time.




1. Wellness

Remember the advisory given when an airplane is preparing to take off: “If you are traveling with a companion, please put your mask on before assisting others.” You can only have the reserves to support your team if you have first taken care of yourself.  When our brains and bodies experience stress, change, and uncertainty, they use more energy. Sleep, physical activity, refueling (i.e., eating a nutritional diet), releasing, and relaxing are necessary to combat this. If you are not practicing each of these five things, stop reading this article right now… and start. Research shows again and again that these elements of wellness are without a doubt the most important aids in performing and leading effectively. If we are not practicing wellness, we will revert to fight-or-flight (see “reptilian brain” ) behaviors that will lead us to act irrationally (see HALT). Stress also produces cortisol, a hormone sometimes referred to as “internal rust,” which can lead to illness and literally shorten our lives. If you are healthier and managing your own stress effectively, you will have more to give to your associates.


2. Flexibility and Agility

Leaders must realize that COVID-19, like many situations, is beyond their control.  Leaders who are “control freaks” can be consumed by this. It is inevitable that at a time of stress and trauma like this, there will be inconceivable and unconventional situations that will arise.  Being able to be flexible and stop, think, and listen rationally before reacting is important. There are a number of things you can do to increase your own ability to be more agile:

• Slow down.  In times of stress, our fast, reactive brain functions take over. These will usually lead us to take actions we are already comfortable with.  Slowing down and considering the options will help us see alternatives;

• Listen.  Almost nobody can handle a situation this unusual by themselves. Check in with your team.  Ask other colleagues and peers. Do some research. Not only will it help you see new alternatives, it will also have your team feel more like they are part of the solution.

• Watch.  Be sure to observe how your decisions unfold. One of the characteristics of unusual circumstances is that things don’t always play out like they normally do. Monitoring them will help you be sure they are having the impact you intend.


3. Empathy and Compassion

We are in an unprecedented time of division and isolation, so now, more than ever, we need to hone our capacity to really drop in with each other and stretch our hope and gratitude “muscles.”  Taking the time to have your group share things they are grateful for, and other reflections can help nourish your team.  Similarly, taking time to have conversations about what your team is hopeful about, what they are looking forward to, and what is helping them feel fulfilled during this time can be very helpful. This needs to be done artfully, however, to avoid the possibility of occurring as unrealistically positive (sometimes referred to as “toxic positivity”) that can breed cynicism and be as damaging as pessimism. Make sure that your team has space to feel their difficult emotions, to go through their grief, anxiety, and sadness about the world. Take the time to hear their struggles. Now, more than ever, people need to be heard. The takeaway here? Encourage gratitude and hopefulness but listen and hold space for whatever may come.  It’s a hard time to be in the world right now, but as leaders we have the opportunity to lighten the load.


4. Time Management

Time management is one of the top skills of a good leader. Teaching time management skills to your team and your managers will pay off in dividends. COVID-19 and the current political environment are causing even more interruptions encouraged by devices, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle. Work Life balance is more important than ever. For many, their workspace has become part of their home life, which can make it nearly impossible to distance from work.


There are some strategies that may help you keep this distance a little bit. Consider:

• Set aside some time in your calendar for breaks. Exercise, family time, resting, relaxing, etc. should all be prioritized like your other obligations.  If you are afraid you “won’t have enough time,” remember the metaphor of stopping to sharpen your saw.  You may surprise yourself to find that when you recharge, you more than make up for the time.

• Encourage your team to do the same as you do. The fresher they are, the better they will be able to handle their stress and your job will be easier.

• Create some time for you to relax as a team. Take frequent breaks from Zoom meetings; Encourage everybody to take a 10-minute walk and come back, etc.


5. Controlling Workload

It is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic is adding an extra ~ 20% to our workload.

Delegation is essential if you are not practicing it (delegation link), start looking at which of the things you are doing that others might take on. This will not only free up your schedule a bit, but you will also be communicating your trust in your colleagues. It is also especially critical at a time like this to be discerning about what you take on. If you are saying “yes” to something new, you need to have the courage to say “no” to something else to create the space for the new activity. This requires being clear about prioritizing your needs and establishing criteria for deciding what is the most important and valuable use of your time, and your team’s time. This is especially true for you or your team members if they have children or others to take care of. Parents, and especially women, are often more strained relative to family responsibilities, and in many cases, they are also helping to home school their children.


Don’t be afraid to “manage up.” Let your leaders know what you and your team are dealing with and how they can help you be more effective and reinforce accountability. There is a tendency for people to feel scattered and chaotic during high stress times, and having clear, short-term goals can help them and you stay focused and keep moving forward one day at a time.


6. The Virtual Workplace

Businesses, governments, and non-profits have been working for over a decade to develop technologies to support a virtual workplace, along with rules and protocols. Most have worked surprisingly well. Having written rules and protocols for working virtually, however, is imperative. I use here guidelines for showing up on time and minimizing external distractions (e.g., devices off).  And always have a Plan B for communicating, if your video platform fails. Having a nice but simple background of your own personal professional space can invite people into you home.


Virtual co-working can be an incredibly valuable resource in this time of isolation.  Having a co-worker or colleague, or even a friend, on a video/audio call next to you while you get work done can add an extra layer of accountability and help create the feeling of working in a shared space, a very necessary counter-measure to the strain of isolation.


For some people, “dressing for work” and “dressing down” to rest and relax can help establish clearer boundaries between work and “off” time.  While it may not seem like much, simply putting on jeans and a nice shirt before sitting down at the computer to get started and then changing clothes when finished with the workday can help distance from being in work mode at all times.  Wearing shoes while working also helps some people with this.  Some people even take walks around their block before starting work, and then walk the opposite direction afterwards, so as to create a “commute” of sorts, helping solidify the work life balance. Also, when possible, try to make contact for some personal time during the day.  (Five Dysfunctions of a Virtual Team)


7. Communication

Denying that we are in crisis and not talking about it is not leading. Really “check in” with people during your one-on-ones. If your company’s leadership is not giving you direction on communicating the perspective, outlook, and impact, ask for it.  It is very easy for team members to fall into reactive and survival-oriented behaviors. Be sure to over communicate your company’s mission and vision as well as you own business unit’s so that people remain clear on the “why” of their work.


8. Team Focus

Ownership and individual accountability are more important than ever, but at a time when people are physically separated, they need to be constantly reminded that they are part of a team. Emphasize the “we” and discourage the natural tendency that people have toward “them vs. us” thinking during times of high stress. Look for and discourage “they and them” language.


There is no question that this is an unprecedented time of challenge but remember that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of two symbols: danger and opportunity.  How you manage this crisis can not only impact your team and your work today but can also create the opportunity for greater growth in the future.  In the end, it comes done to this:


Make being good to yourself and your people a top priority. It will pay off both in the short term, and the long term! And have faith we will get through this crisis together!


We would love to hear your perspectives!  Please feel free to us contact at or

Copyright ©2020 North Rock Leadership Inc. All rights reserved.


Executive Coach and

Professional Development Consultant


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Executive Coach and

Professional Development Consultant