Mistakes Leaders Make During Crisis

April 27, 2020 Updated: April 27, 2020

One of the hardest things for a leader to do is lead with the right mindset during a moment of crisis.

It’s not easy.

During my military career, I led through many crises … and I’ve made plenty of mistakes in those moments. In 2004 when we were in Afghanistan, one of my best friends was a company commander who had taken several of his detachments into combat in a Southern province. Their helicopter was literally shot out from underneath them.

It changed the nature of the whole operation. We had a chopper down. We had pilots on the field. We had men wounded. Now we were looking at a recovery mission.

I knew all of the guys on the field that day, but what kept creeping in was the thought that my best friend was out there. It was creating not only a distraction, but it was informing my behavior in a way that wasn’t necessarily helpful. It completely altered my mindset. The way it manifested with me, was that I kept over-communicating to him in the initial moments, trying to get feedback, trying to get updates, and just trying to let him know I was there until he said, “Brother, you have got to give me space to work this.” He had to call me off.

I realized in that moment that I had allowed my friendship and the fear of losing my friend to cloud my judgment. I was allowing my primal brain to dominate in a complex situation that required a different, more advanced level of thinking. I heard him, I backed off, and I reassessed and reoriented myself to start trying to work on what I could control. Where could I be a value of assistance to these guys now? Where could we be of value in the operation center? They needed me to be on my game, and that’s what I did.

There were lessons learned that day that I have carried with me through every crisis since. How do we adopt the most effective mindset to lead through these difficult moments and look at past situations when leaders made mistakes and learn from them? In many situations like this pandemic, we have to lead ourselves and those around us, so let’s have that conversation.

The first mistake is an overreaction to the event. Our mindset needs to be strong, unwavering, and calm. When a crisis unfolds, we need to sort out the immediate threat, and we need to figure out if we’re safe, just like we have all done now with COVID-19. That’s a primal reaction of the amygdala in our brain. Then once we do that, we can step back and really take an assessment and attune to our new environment.

Too many leaders during this unfolding crisis are overreacting in the moment with each news brief. What happens when we do that as leaders? We take ourselves out of the fight. We’re no longer credible. We’ve overextended, we’ve overreached, and now we’re in the churn so deeply that we become emotionally invested and we can’t lead with clarity. That overreaction mindset is a dangerous thing.

We have to remember that we don’t see the full picture. We can’t, at least not in the beginning. And we won’t if we surrender to primal fear. More facts are going to come in. Some things will be irrelevant. Some things will go away. Some new things will emerge.

The second mindset mistake I have seen far too often over the last few weeks is leaders going inside their own heads … and getting trapped. We have to mentally step away and focus on the people around us to get outside of ourselves. If we can do that, then we start to become relevant and relatable again. Being stuck in your own head during a crisis breaks down trust and incites panic around you.

The third mindset mistake is one I see leaders fall into all the time without even being aware they have done it, and that’s relying on instinct instead of skill. In the initial moment of crisis, if there’s an immediate threat on you, instinct is everything, especially if instinct is informed by training. But once you’ve ascertained that you are not facing an immediate life or death threat, but rather a complex threat, like the collapse of the market, an angry customer, or someone close to your organization has gotten sick, then it’s absolutely important that we rely on our training and our skill. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into a mindset that relies on instinct beyond those moments.

You can trust your gut, but we’ve got to allow your training and experience to take lead at some point.

We cannot rely on the mindsets of instinct and emotion as the singular default during this crisis. It is up to us as leaders to make the decision know to stand up and lead strong for our ourselves, our families, our teams, and our communities.

Remember … fear is contagious, but so is leadership.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com