Top 12 Crisis Leadership Principles

As we step back and review the last 60 days of Covid and the last 30-45 day of sheltering in place (yes, it’s only been those number of days), many people have been thrust into crisis leadership.

Uniquely, during this crisis event, we’ve had to lead remotely and deliver such leadership on Zoom, Slack, Email, or even social media.

As I reflect deeply on what’s been working, what isn’t working, and what to never forget for the next leadership crisis, I began writing down my personal “Best Of’s” as I seek to memorialize and pattern match the leadership lessons I/we are all learning once again.

Always pass on what you have learned. (Yoda)

Learn the past, watch the present, create the future (Jess Conrad)

My Top 12 Crisis Leadership Principles

#1 Safety First: Both Physical and Mental. Closer to the Heart. Fear and fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful human emotions. Leaders must first address physical and mental safety the best they possibly can by addressing the unknown and communicating what is being done for physical safety and communicating “what is known”, “what remains unknown”, and “when we are likely to know more” to begin to address and acknowledge mental safety.

And those that hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the hear

Geddy Lee (Rush)

#2 Relationships Second. I’ve written about this before. Transparency is Required especially in times of crisis. Silence and “hiding the ball” breeds more fear. Transparency establishes and reinforces Trust. Relationships require Trust. During crisis events, we find ourselves in simultaneous states of being required to both Give and Receive. In order to do either, I’m arguing a relationship must first be established or if already established, reinforced and relied upon. Lead your relationship with transparency. Trust will follow.

I created this for one of my Leadership Presentations to 100’s of CFO’s over the course of the last 30 days. My premise? Relationships are the foundation.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care

Theodore Roosevelt


#3 Lead With Why.

Once safety is addressed, and relationships are established or re-established, now it’s time to lean in and engage everyone. Lead with Why. During fear cycles, we all hear a lot of fear based questions that start with “What are you Doing!?” Instead, lead with ‘Why We Are Doing This”.


#4 Authenticity and Vulnerability Required.

Being Authentic Requires Being Vulnerable.  Being Vulnerable starts with explaining “Why”, saying “I Don’t Know” followed by “What Do You Think?”. “Why” is all about each other’s reasoning and seeking shared understandings on why decisions were made. Vulnerability is the ultimate Leadership Strength. It identifies the gap trying to be filled and encourages others to help/engage to fill the gap. It’s a super powerful to say “I/We Don’t Know” And “Here’s How We Are Thinking About It” and “How We Believe We’ll Figure This Out and When”. If you let people in, you can build a Relationship of (see #2 – Transparency and Trust)

A great example of a recent communication incorporating authenticity and vulnerability was recently published by Carta’s CEO Henry Ward with regards to layoffs the company recently announced.


#5 Find New Ways To Communicate.

I’m struck by the multiple great leaders and communicators who have expressed the new lessons they are learning on Zoom communications and their surprise quality and intensity of communications remotely (over video). These leaders believed there communications would be much worse and harder. They are realizing in many cases Zoom (or Teams, or Meet, or other) is a better, more focused medium. I encourage us to continue to explore “Why” this is possible? We’ve learned these lessons in the “age of TV” and the power of the visual and verbal connection that “one at a time seeing and talking” to masses of people provides with only a screen trying to connect everyone. Great “movies” can be powerful mediums as well for the same reasons. Thinking about how to communicate differently and with all the resources you have is the lesson here. While leading on Zoom, I’ve found the need to be even more observant, to “read the room/screen” for body language or raised hands. I’ve learned to use the Chat sidebar as an advantage. To ensure all participants (or as many as possible or are comfortable) to engage. It requires an understanding of the audience, the medium you are communicating through and the strengths weaknesses of that medium.


#6 Build a Knowledge CenterA Data Center. Crowdsource the Best.

In every crisis, a small set of regularly reported news and data feeds emerge. Whether it’s Elad Gil or Tomas Pueyo or 1point3acres or the Crowdsourced Public List of Complete Information, learn this lesson and establish it deeply for your next leadership routine (crisis or not). The point being that “Data and Facts Win” and “The Best Ideas Win”. Don’t just communicate “What You Know”, “What You Don’t Know”, and “When You Expect to Know” as a leader (#1 Safety) , write it down and publish it in an easily accessible, publicly shareable place (the web, public Google Doc, internal Company Wiki). Keep collecting the data as it comes in to this location. Keep sharing it. Ask everyone to comment, share what they know, and add to it. The power of a trusted data/knowledge center and the power crowdsourced engagement is the lesson here.

Covid Statistics Data Center


#7 Drive Decisions Based on the Data.

Let the Knowledge/Data Center drive your decisions. Sometimes you need to act without all the required data using a leadership point of view or even your leadership opinion based on the data you have. That’s ok too. But the great news about documenting your decisions and assumptions based on what data/opinions you do have, is that you can test the assumptions/opinions as the events unfold, collect more data, and then course correct as required. This circular loop of Assumptions>Data>Decisions>Course Correct


#8 Understand that Misinformation is Rampant during Crisis Events.

It’s either naive/ignorant or worse purposefully exploited to drive Fear. Fear drives bad decisions. See points #6 and #1.


#9 Engage to Win.

Ask for help from everyone. Especially your family, friends, employees, investors. “What Do You Think?”, “How Can I Help?”, and “How Can You Help” are 3 very powerful questions in times of crisis.


#10 Availability>Communication>Conversation>Engagement>Trust

Open doors lead to conversation. Conversation leads to Engagement. Engagement done the right way (Transparently, Authentically, and Leading with Why) establishes Trust. We’ve proven we can even do this remotely and over Zoom. We are building new muscle here.

#11 Empathy, Dignity, Integrity.

I’ve found myself using Doug Leone’s (Sequoia) quote that I heard from a recent Sequoia leadership session. Reminds me so much of my personal years with Bill Campbell and the same lessons of “It’s the People” and “People will never forget how you treat them or how you made them feel”.

Be As Generous As You Can With the Constraints That You Have

Doug Leone – Sequoia


#12 There Are No Clear Playbooks during a Crisis but Plays Must Be Called. Leadership is required. Leadership requires actions/decisions. Take actions based on either data or clear points of view (opinion). # 5 and #6 on the list above. Focus on “What You/Your Team Can Control” and explicitly “What You Can’t Control”.

“And if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”

Neil Peart (Rush)

  • Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. “As fast as you possibly can with the data you have”


  • Develop clear IF/THEN Contingency/Action Plans with clear steps (Oxygen mask first, life vest 2nd, brace for impact 3rd, then find the Exit)


  • One Size Does Not Fit All. The same ideas don’t work for everyone. Your particular situation/position could be safer or more dangerous than others situations/positions. Don’t make the fatal mistake of making your safer position more dangerous by “Doing What Everyone Else is Doing”. Don’t make your dangerous position more dangerous by not moving quickly to a more safe position by sitting still and hoping the danger passes.

The above bullets and more were from a presentation I gave to dozens of CFO’s on Zoom in multiple sessions over the last 30 days that I embedded here for easier access.


Today’s Blog post and “Best Of” list was developed as I woke up a few days ago trying to encapsulate the lessons we are learning during this crisis. I’ve routinely collected “Best Ofs” over 30+ yrs in Silicon Valley and over 3+ similar macro-economic crisis cycles and dozens of micro-crisis cycles where I sat in various Leadership positions.    Clearly, I’ve been also taking the opportunity during these WFH weeks to listen to my “Best Of” background music (Rush) and the song lyrics influence may have contributed.

Many of my colleagues and current and former teammates, friends and family who are reading this were with me during these events and I encourage each of you to comment, add your own “Best Of” that I missed, and to certainly engage so collectively we can….

“Transmit Our Knowledge to those that Follow….Greater than it was Transmitted to Us”

(modified from Phi Delta Theta motto; also adapted as “Pay It Forward”)

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