5 Key Leadership Tips To Heed In Times Of Crisis

Leadership Tips: Learn From The Best

I was recently reminded by David Lapin (author of Lead by Greatness) about the 2009 story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully emergency-landing his crippled airplane on the Hudson River, without the loss of a single life. It struck me that this would have been a great case study for leaders of state to prepare them for a more adequate response to the COVID-19 threat. As I draw some key leadership tips, I will not venture into a discussion of the most important decision that Sully made. This was his choice to engage his heroic inner self, rather than his defensive inner self (this is covered in the webinar, "Lead in the Moment" delivered by David, that inspired this article). It is an amazing insight that we should all engage in.

A synopsis of the Sully story: On January 15, 2009, Sully's (Captain Chesley Sullenberger) Airbus A320 was struck by a flock of Canadian geese shortly after take-off from New York's La Guardia airport. The airplane lost all engine power and Sully together with his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, glided the plane to a ditch on the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan. Remarkably, all on board were rescued without any loss of life.

Key leadership tips, on handling crises, to be drawn from this case study are:

1. Denial Of A Potential Crisis Is Futile, Wastes Time, And May Have Adverse Outcomes

Sully's immediate reaction to the crisis was one of denial, firstly, "This can't be happening" and then "This doesn't happen to me." But, he galvanized himself to move past denial quickly and to act based on the reality of the situation.

Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro got caught up in denial, calling the coronavirus "a little cold." On the other hand, countries like South Korea and Germany reacted decisively and brought immediate actions to bear to contain the virus and save lives. The outcome for Brazil versus South Korea and Germany has, as a result, been significantly worse.

Leadership Tip: Denial is not a response and seldom works out well.

2. Make Hard Decisions Based On Good Reason And Stick To Them

Great leaders have a clear purpose which enables them to swiftly make value-based decisions and be prepared to make significant sacrifices to achieve a higher purpose.

Sully was aware that every decision that he took would be scrutinized endlessly, but this did not stop him from "making hard choices and sticking to them." He based his decision on the fact that he was "willing to sacrifice the airplane to save lives." Essentially, he saw the higher purpose of his role as "getting his passengers to their destination safely, no matter what it took." This clarity of higher purpose enabled him to be decisive about being prepared to sacrifice the airplane (an asset worth USD 120 million) to save lives (passengers and crew, as well as potentially people on the ground).

What is the essence of the real purpose of leaders of countries? Surely it is about the wellness and wellbeing of their people, with wellness (the value of life) being above wellbeing (the value of livelihood/economic cost) in the event of a crisis?

Many of us would agree with the sentiments of Paul Taylor (a contributing editor at Politico), regarding Donald Trump. He wrote, "After weeks in which he downplayed the risk to public health, the U.S. president blames the killer respiratory virus on China, the European Union, a Democratic Party hoax, and the media, while heaping praise on...himself." Taylor goes on to say, "The coronavirus has laid bare the president's narcissism, ignorance and visceral divisiveness. His inability to engage with detail or distinguish fact from wishful thinking has left his senior advisors squirming in embarrassment behind him on the White House podium." It seems to me (Phil McInnes) that Trump put his own ego and political ends above the wellness and wellbeing of the American public at large. This has led to his vacillation in decision-making, his not being prepared to make sacrifices on things important to himself/political ends, and his playing of the blame game.

Regarding Angela Merkle, Taylor summed up Merkle's response as follows: "Her fundamental decency and evidence-based decision-making have restored her standing as Europe's sure-handed leader." He further comments, "She has displayed a surprising willingness to jettison Germany's long-standing balanced budget dogma in such dramatic circumstances."

Leadership Tip: Leaders must clearly define the purpose for which they serve their beneficiaries. In times of crisis, when leaders are called to make tough decisions, those that have a clear purpose will make tough choices for the right reasons and will be prepared to make sacrifices, as well as stand the test of scrutiny.

3. Start With What You Know Or Have Access To In Order To Solve New Problems

Sully later explained the basis for his actions as follows: "I took what I did know, adapted it, and applied it in a new way to solve a problem I'd never seen before."

Good leaders, when faced with tough problems, draw on what they know and their experience. They are not afraid to admit when they need help. In fact, they will actively and genuinely seek out people with the right know-how and experience to help them, as well as connect with other leaders with whom they can collaborate to solve mutual problems.

Trump has vacillated, from the beginning, on almost every decision relating to COVID-19. He is clearly politically motivated, divisive, and glib on decisions that should command the best possible advice, serious consideration and collaboration. Trying to bluff and bully your way through a problem is not leadership Mr. President of the USA!

Leadership Tip: Recognize what you know and use it to solve what you don't know. There is no shame in admitting "what you don't know" and then, if possible, seeking assistance as well as the opportunity to collaborate with people and organizations with a shared problem.

4. Communicate Clearly, With A Sense Of Authority That Gives People The Confidence To Do What You Are Asking

Sully gave his one and only announcement to passengers and crew: "This is the Captain. Brace for impact." He also communicated his intentions very calmly to the air traffic controllers and to his onboard team. This enabled his crew to be prepared and first responders to arrive on the scene as quickly as possible. Further, he kept passengers from panicking as they were rescued, by communicating calmly and exuding the confidence that they would make it out alive.

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa initially communicated well with his public. In a country that is tough to lead, with many challenges, he achieved a remarkable commitment from a divided nation to one of the toughest lockdowns anywhere in the world. This, undoubtedly, slowed the spread of the coronavirus and bought the government precious time to prepare. However, his subsequent vacillation and the divisiveness in his own party are fast undermining this, which does not augur well.

Leadership Tip: Leaders, in fact nobody, should underestimate the power of clear, authoritative communication that gives the audience confidence in what you are asking them to believe or do. This takes practice and leaders should not wait for a crisis to develop this skill.

5. It Is The Relationship That You Have Built Before That Earns Support And Commitment From Those Around You In A Crisis

Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, had only recently become acquainted but had built up remarkable rapport. Skiles immediately committed to Sully's heroic pursuit and gave him absolute and critical support to help him land the plane safely on the Hudson River.

Sadly, politics can be destructive and divisive. Rivals and those with mischievous agendas continually try to undermine the many leaders of state who are simply trying to do their best. Sadly, this ramps up during times of crisis, which has been very evident during the COVID-19 crisis. This forces many leaders to revert to a defensive operating style versus the heroic one that will earn them the levels of support and commitment required to deal with crises.

Leadership Tip: Develop your heroic inner self to become a leader that inspires confidence and earns support and commitment, even from your critics. Many leadership coaches will have read Lead by Greatness and should be able to assist in this regard.


It is incumbent on all of us involved in coaching or teaching to find real-life case studies that can create lessons that resonate with current, relevant challenges. There must be many, let's share them so that we can all use them.