The Number One Skill Leaders Need In A Crisis

LAST UPDATE ON June 28, 2023

There are several skills that leaders should possess that are successfully lead in a crisis. Skills such as:

  • The ability to get people to stretch and accomplish a difficult challenge
  • Using a strategic perspective and the ability to take the long view
  • Mentally focus on what’s happening outside of your organisation, rather than focusing internally.
  • Influencing a majority of people to make a significant change
  • Delivering significant and important results when needed
  • Optimize internal talent to its fullest

Managing employees in a virtual workspace is one of the most challenging tasks during the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of this comes down to three areas; motivation, vision and communication.

What is the most immediate impact, and helps or hurts a leader the most in a crisis?

Is the ability to communicate powerfully and prolifically. Over the last few weeks of experiencing the pandemic, there have seen a variety of excellent and terrible examples.

The data from 97,822 leaders in the graph below show the effectiveness of leaders communicating powerfully on the horizontal axis.

On the vertical axis, we measured the percentile ranking on the level of confidence that direct reports had that their goals would be achieved. It’s evident from the data that leaders who were more skilled at communicating had direct reports who were much more confident that the organisation’s goals would be accomplished.

Communication study


Keeping employees Informed VS Communicating Powerfully

The first step in improving communication is keeping others well informed. Often leaders get negative feedback from their direct reports about not being informed of changes, new directions, or decisions that impact them.

The impact of keeping others informed has been measured in companies going through a merger. When a merger is announced, leaders are forbidden to share confidential information with their employees. This stern warning from the lawyers causes many managers to stop almost all communications with their teams.

In spite of the warnings, other managers continued to meet with their teams often and talk with team members about their concerns. Even though many of the team members’ questions could not be answered, they continued to communicate. Managers who met regularly and communicated were substantially more successful after the merger, while managers who quit communicating had higher turnover and more integration problems post-merger. Everyone wants to be well informed and is frustrated when they are surprised by changes.

Many managers set a goal to keep direct reports and their managers well informed. Doing this is a beginning step of becoming a powerful communicator. The table below illustrates some of the differences between a leader who is an informer and one that is a powerful communicator.

Communicating Powerfully

Becoming a Powerful Communicator as a Leader

To discover what leaders did to move from being an informer to a powerful communicator, Zenger Folkman analyzed data from 97,700 leaders. Looking at the data, there were five enabling skills that facilitated leaders in communicating powerfully.

If leaders were just above average on their performance on these five skills, their ability to communicate powerfully would be rated at the 82nd percentile. The implication of this research is that leaders need to have a reasonable level of skill in all five areas.

Inspires and Motivates Others

For most people, this feels like a big challenge, but a few simple techniques that can help every leader to be more inspiring. Making an emotional connection can make communications more inspiring while being distant and elusive is uninspiring. Leaders can make an emotional connection by including others in the conversation, thanking people for their contributions. Using stories to illustrate important points also makes communications more memorable and a higher impact. Inserting passion, excitement, and fun into what is said always helps. 

Strategic Perspective

What can make communications more impactful is to link the issue being discussed back to the strategy and vision of the organisation. Linking a problem back to the strategy illustrates why an issue is important. This is easy to do, but too often, leaders assume that others automatically see the linkage.

Focus on Priorities

Often people in organisations complain that every issue brought up is the number one priority. It’s called the colour of the day because these priorities change so regularly. By linking the issue to a priority, a leader is communicating the importance of that issue. When leaders do this, it increases the probability of implementation substantially.

Address the Individual

Too frequently, communications are focused on broad organisational issues that no one feels a personal responsibility to change. By breaking issues down into specific actions that individuals need to take makes every communication more actionable.

Building Trust

This skill has a dramatic effect on communications. Imagine a leader giving an inspiring speech where they say all the right things in an inspiring way, but you distrust this leader. Everything is neutralised because of the lack of trust. With high levels of trust, even mediocre communications are accepted and utilised.

When we looked at data from over 3,000 leaders who were working to make improvements, communicating powerfully was the one competency that showed the largest level of improvement. Every person can do something to improve in this area, and even a little progress will have a significant impact. 


Article adapted from Joe Folkman (founder of two leadership development firms, Novations and Zenger Folkman)