Leadership Lessons During Crisis

By: Karen Mildenhall

In May 2016, it became clear my father’s health was declining. He lived a significant distance away from his eight children. Three of us traveled to evaluate his situation and ensure he received help. This initial intervention began a difficult road of navigating my dad’s health care, financial, legal, and housing challenges. As I reflected on these experiences, I found six key insights about leadership in crisis that will continue to influence me throughout my life.

Be Your Best

Behavior during a crisis reveals who leaders really are. Intentionally determining to be your best takes the stress down a notch. Behaving with courtesy and speaking respectfully focuses a leader’s energy on those you lead and allows you to problem solve rather than struggle with repairing relationships. Being at your best allows you to think clearly, respond rationally, and remain focused on what is important.

Be Observant

Effective leaders understand the culture, behavior, and norms of the world they operate in. Notice shifts or changes in these norms or behaviors. These are early indications that clients, markets, and/or colleagues require attention. Ignoring change immediately indicates a low level of care and puts you behind the crisis in a defensive position. The person who notices changes and gives appropriate attention to those changes can more effectively lead, and can in some cases prevent a crisis from occurring. Noticing change shows you care and gives you the ability to move to an offensive position more rapidly.

Ask Questions

Information gives leaders power to guide the team through a crisis. Asking relevant questions and carefully listening gives you knowledge and the ability to strategically and tactically prepare for what comes next. This mutual give and take of information also helps build trust. During my dad’s crisis, I picked the brains of first responders, doctors, nurses, social workers, Medicaid representatives, Social Security representatives, health care administrators, and providers. Listening to them helped my dad receive good care and my siblings to better understand the situation we were facing.

Be A Communicator

Crisis leaders provide candid, clear, and brief communication frequently to help the team be at their best and remain focused. The regular Facebook group messages we exchanged helped all the siblings understand what was happening and provided clarity on how to help. Frequent communication also helped us compare observations and support one another as we navigated the crisis.

Take Action

Leadership in a crisis requires assertive focused action. Observing, asking questions, and communicating are the three most powerful resources to determine the course of action. Action must remain focused on the most important steps to address the problem(s). It is easy to become distracted by being busy with matters that do not specifically move you toward your goals. Be courageous and make decisions. Move forward to reach your objectives.

Be Grateful

Navigating a crisis within an organization is never a one-person show. Express sincere gratitude to the people who take on the various facets of working through the crisis. Giving timely and specific feedback, including what you are thankful for and expressing trust, further spurs those involved to stay engaged and working toward the goals. Our family owes a great deal of thanks to the various caregivers and professionals who helped with my dad’s care. A grateful leader increases the capacity of the individuals and team. As Margaret Cousins said, “Appreciation can change a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary.”


My dad passed away late in September 2016. The summer was very difficult for all, but these six leadership insights helped our family navigate the unknown and difficult road we traveled. The dark days are not as dark when we determine to be our best, be observant, ask questions, communicate, take action, and be grateful. Intentionally implementing these leadership practices will help each of us in everyday leadership, especially when navigating a crisis.

Karen Mildenhall is the CEO and President on KM Leadership Solutions, LLC. For more information about KM Leadership Solutions, check out our website or follow them on LinkedIn and Twitter.   

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