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6 war-proven leadership rules to follow during a crisis

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Since February 24, 2022, our usual way of working has changed dramatically. Instead of experimenting with new content formats for fun and easy learning, we had to evacuate our Ukrainian team to safe regions in Ukraine and abroad. This experience has become the most challenging crisis for our company, and the times of Covid-19 now seem only preparation for today’s harsh military realities. But now, more than half a year after the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, our team has stabilized; we had no downtime in operations and even accelerated our growth.

I believe that decisive leadership is the secret to weathering a crisis and adapting to a new reality – and my company’s managers, as well as the wider team, have fully embraced this challenge. These five crisis leadership rules have helped our core team and every employee do business despite the horrors of war.

Related: I run two businesses in Ukraine. Here’s How We Are Resilient Enough To Operate During War

Rule #1: Promote a culture of leadership at all levels

Lead at all levels – that means each team member must take responsibility for their work. But how do you achieve this when most people usually want someone to tell them what to do? The answer is in the ladder of control principle described in the book Turn the ship over! by David Marquet.

The main point is to bring authority to the lowest possible level by encouraging people to take responsibility, and the main secret is a small change of language that your team usually uses. When your employees ask a manager what to do, all the burden is on the manager. In the short term it may be easier and faster, but in the long term the team feels less responsible, involved and motivated. We ask people to start their request with ‘I plan to…’ and add relevant information so that the manager only has to say ‘Very good’. It really makes a difference. People begin to take ownership, become more responsible and engaged, and turn to the real driving force behind a business. This leadership strategy works at all levels – from top executives to juniors.

By fostering your climb up the ladder of control, you build a leadership culture in which leaders bring forth new leaders. This rule is primarily; without it we wouldn’t pass the war test.

Related: Property: The Ultimate Motivator

Rule #2: Focus on people

All critical business decisions and growth are the merits of the people, not a strategy or tool. Therefore, any wise leader must invest in the team, their growth and their sense of security to realize the growth of the company. Research shows that psychological safety at work, when people can act and speak without fear, is a crucial driver for employee efficiency, healthy relationships at work and increased motivation. Ultimately, it is the basis for effective decision-making.

But a serious crisis can jeopardize all your efforts to build psychological safety in your company, so you should put anything that doesn’t help people stabilize on the back burner for a while and focus on supporting your team. First people, then business. Think about your employees’ most critical needs – health problems, economic challenges or even life threats – and try to fulfill them as much as possible.

That’s why we focused on people’s safety during the first day of the war. We have evacuated our Ukrainian team with their families to safe places in western Ukraine and provided them with temporary housing. After a few weeks we moved part of our team to Poland. After providing security for our entire Ukrainian team, we launched a series of psychologists’ and team meetings to share feelings and personal experiences of the war.

All this has helped us to get through a challenging period of shocks and to adapt to the current conditions so that we can function as stable as possible again.

Related: Why the Ukraine Crisis Should Make You Rethink How You Lead

Rule #3: Prioritize and act quickly

During a crisis, the strategies of having a long-term vision and planning for that future don’t work. You have to come up with a new tactic according to the new reality and be ready to change your plans at any time. However, it is essential to establish business priorities and keep them focused. Sometimes that means giving up or significantly reducing some business guidelines, even if you’ve been working on them passionately for a long time.

We haven’t stopped providing training services to our customers for a day, but our Ukrainian team was unable to work as usual during the first week of the war. As we focused our resources and efforts on the safety of our team members and their families, not knowing what would happen, we refrained from investing in new projects. Instead, we decided to focus on actions that would help our business survive the crisis and continue to make a profit.

Those reactive decisions helped us get through turbulent times for business, and after a few months, when all operations were stable, we picked up new projects again.

Rule #4: Practice Integrative Consciousness and Keep Bounded Optimism

In other words: stay confident, don’t give up hope, but stay in touch with reality. How do you implement it in practice when you run the business in unprecedented uncertain circumstances and are constantly anxious? There is no perfect recipe, but carefully observing the rapidly changing reality and your feelings about it can help you stay relatively calm and not spread your fear to the team. According to McKinsey, this approach is called integrative awareness. It enables leaders of all levels to see even the most complicated challenges as problems they can solve and lessons everyone can learn.

Another critical term for this rule is bounded optimism. Again, it’s about being sensitive to severe crisis conditions but maintaining a positive vision for the future and giving the team a sense of purpose and hope during the crisis.

Related: What the war in Ukraine can teach entrepreneurs about cooperation

Rule #5: Ensure transparent communication

A crisis is a time when you have more questions than answers, and the best way to communicate about this is to be candid. Tell your team not only what you know, but also what you don’t know. Be clear about the current situation and your next steps to address it, and don’t be afraid to appear vulnerable. While you are responsible for your employees, you give them much more hope and support by acting like a real person they can identify with.

Ultimately, acknowledging problems and openly communicating your concerns is much more effective than suppression; it enables the team to respond to new challenges and create new and powerful ideas to address them.

Rule #6: Adapt quickly

You can never fully prepare for a crisis, even if you have experienced it once. That’s why it’s important to develop multiple plans and be prepared for things to get out of hand. In this case, you need to restrain yourself, find strength and stability and start your new plan to fight the crisis. Accepting that things can go wrong ultimately increases resilience and the chance to remain flexible and adaptable.

In Ukraine, we have established the truth of these words in our own experience. A few months before February 24, the information field in Ukraine and worldwide was tense with news of a possible Russian attack. In response, our team has prepared several contingency plans and different scenarios – from the most positive to the absolute worst.

Going through a crisis with your team is a crush test and a groundbreaking experience for your company. And the best thing you can do to take it on prepared is to cultivate leadership in your team at all levels, invest in people’s growth and of course work on your awareness, adaptability and resilience. Take this learning as a priority, and you’ll be prepared for practically anything. As Nelson Mandela put it, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

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