How to Lead in a Crisis

UPDATED: April 7, 2020
PUBLISHED: March 27, 2020
How to Lead in a Crisis

When Napoleon marched an army of 685,000 men into Russia in June 1812, he was at the height of his power.

By November, he retreated home with only 27,000 soldiers, and France’s dominance in Europe was shattered.

How could an invincible position become a disastrous crisis in five short months? Easy, when a leader breaks every rule of crisis management.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, it was shaping up to be another business-as-usual year. Sure, the world was broken in the familiar ways, but nobody expected that 7 billion people would be forced indoors, cut off from the outside world we always took for granted.

How our leaders, and how you and I act in the next several months will determine how we weather this a once-a-century pandemic.

Thankfully, history has six lessons to teach leaders about triumphing over crisis.

1. Learn from history.

“When you’re going through hell, keep going” —Anonymous

The best way to deal with a crisis is to be well prepared for it. History repeats itself, and there are almost no unprecedented situations. Effective leaders are like good Boy Scouts: prepared for anything. They know that the arrival of a crisis is a matter of “when,” not “if.”

How to fail:

Napoleon did prepare for his campaign by studying prior attacks on that country, but he failed to use that information.

He knew that, in the Swedish invasion of Russia 100 years earlier, supplying the troops was tough because of a poor road network, and because the Russians used scorched earth tactics—hiding or destroying cattle and crops that his invading army would need to survive.

Napoleon arranged for a massive logistical campaign, but still counted on his army’s ability to forage in enemy territory.

He also knew that the harsh Russian winter devastated the Swedish forces. Amazingly, he equipped none of his soldiers with winter clothes, even as cold weather approached. Although he studied history, he didn’t learn from it.

How to win:

Taiwan is only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from mainland China, and each year, millions of travelers fly back and forth. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the island would be one of the places hardest hit by COVID-19.

At the time of writing, Taiwan reports only 252 confirmed cases, and two deaths. How did they avoid a much larger crisis? The country was hit hard by SARS in 2003 and again by H1N1 in 2009, so its leaders were prepared. They learned from history.

The World Health Organization alerted the world to a new and potentially serious viral outbreak on December 31st, 2019, and according to one report, Taiwanese officials were boarding flights to China the same day to study the problem. Five days later, visitors from Wuhan were being screen as they deplaned.

Taiwan had studied history well, and took this new threat seriously. Being prepared, it was able to move quickly to minimize the crisis.

2. Embrace reality.

“There is nothing more important than understanding how reality works and how to deal with it.” —Ray Dalio

Humans want to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so our egos are constantly on the lookout for information that confirms that we are awesome. Facts to the contrary, be damned!

But sometimes, reality sucks. The temptation to indulge in delusion is strong, and we pretend that a best-case scenario is a likelier outcome than the approaching catastrophe.

Reality thinks our delusions are cute, pats us on the head, and does its own thing. In order to effectively handle a crisis, we need to see this objectively. If Napoleon had, they might be speaking French in Moscow right now.

How to fail:

Soon after the French army marched into Russia, it became obvious that a crisis was building. Thousands of supply wagons were supposed to accompany the troops east, but they lagged behind from day one.

Napoleon knew that even thousands of tons of transported supplies wouldn’t feed all his troops; he expected they would pull their weight and loot supplies from villages as they passed, like in previous wars. But as his soldiers discovered one burned out village after another, it was clear that reality was not cooperating.

If Napoleon did see reality, he chose to ignore it, and engaged in a fantasy that his oxcarts could supply his army long enough to win.

Napoleon might have dug in and focused on a resupply effort, but instead he pressed on into a worsening crisis.

How to win:

Former General Electric super-CEO Jack Welch was known for walking into crisis meetings and asking, “What’s the reality?” and it was the secret of his success. He knew that the truth is a powerful tool in solving any crisis, like our pandemic.

When Taiwanese investigators returned from Wuhan in early January, the country’s leaders had the information necessary to see reality, but also had the courage to accept it. They began treating this as a serious crisis.

It was Taiwan that, on March 9th, urged the World Health Organization to label this coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, in hopes that the world would take this threat more seriously. The WHO director-general originally rejected the idea, only to reverse course and apply the pandemic label on March 12th.

Great leaders know that solving problems requires a fearless willingness to face the facts. Only then can we act effectively.

3. Follow a strategy.

“In reality strategy is actually very straightforward. You pick a general direction and implement like hell.” —Jack Welch

When you have the courage to take off your rose-colored glasses and face a crisis honestly, you collect valuable information about the situation, and a potential solution will often present itself. The path to that solution will become your strategy—a powerful tool for any leader.

If you want to win a battle, you need to execute a plan that is likely to bring victory. And what crisis isn’t a battle?

Many leaders fail to create, let alone stick to, a strategy in a crisis; instead, they’re buffeted from one daily challenge to another, always reactive, and never in control. That’s a recipe for a war that ends in death by a thousand cuts.

How to fail:

Napoleon did have a strategy as he crossed into Russia, one that worked in numerous prior campaigns: Move fast and crush the enemy army. But the strategy was terribly flawed, both because he failed to learn from history, and failed to see reality clearly.

From history, he could have expected that the Russians would withdraw, and so a decisive battle would escape him.

From reality, he should have seen that the Russian roads would prevent his supplies from keeping up with the troops, and that the Russians would use scorched earth tactics, robbing his army from the supplies needed to stay alive.

Within weeks it was clear that his plan was out of line with reality, and that a crisis was worsening.

How to win:

Acknowledging this crisis as a major threat, Taiwan knew it needed a comprehensive plan to prevent infections and deaths. Its strategy has been to identify and contain as many domestic cases as possible, and it was confident of success because of what it learned from previous outbreaks, and from being honest about the situation.

Every action the country has taken since early January has supported that strategy: integrating its national health and customs databases to flag symptomatic travelers, tracking quarantined individuals, and literally sending investigators to track down sick people.

Taiwan’s strategy is working, and its people have largely been able to avoid the strict house arrest and economy-killing measures that most of the Western World is uneasily tolerating.

4. Take decisive action.

“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body… The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.” —General George S. Patton

OK, you’ve prepared for this crisis by studying history; you’ve looked at the facts without deluding yourself; and you’ve used that reality to inform your strategy.

Now it’s time to act—not in a casual way, like you were walking to Sunday brunch, but with massive and urgent action, like your house is on fire.

A crisis is a time of extreme difficulty, and so extreme effort is the only suitable response. Batten down the hatches! Call up the reserves! Activate the emergency fund!

You may need to institute 100-hour workweeks for yourself and your team, and sacrifice some self-care and social time. Massive action is not sustainable forever, but there’s a time and place for it. A crisis qualifies.

How to fail:

Napoleon’s calling card had always been decisive action. In the early stages of his Russian invasion, progress was swift. The French Grand Army’s initial crossing of the Niemen River almost cut off Russia’s 6th Corps, nearly annihilating 12,000 men.

Only four days after the river crossing, the French entered Vilna, headquarters of the Russian Army, led by the Russian Emperor, Alexander himself.

But the French army wasn’t fast enough: It arrived just one hour after the Russian evacuation. They found Vilna’s supplies, and the bridge ahead, destroyed.

Napoleon’s decisive win slipped through his fingers by a matter of an hour. Later in the campaign he was thwarted again, this time by his own brother, Jerome, whose army’s slow advance allowed Russia’s 2nd Army to escape unscathed. It would be the same army he faced months later in the costly Battle of Borodino.

How to win:

Taiwan knew that a perfect, elegant strategy is worthless without decisive execution. The country has consistently been ahead of others in combating this virus, and the results show.

Before the end of January, it had activated its epidemic command center, banned travelers from Wuhan, barred its own people from traveling to China, and set up electronic monitoring of citizens in quarantine. In contrast, most of the world had not even started screening tourists at their airports.

On March 19th, Taiwan went further, banning all foreigners from entering the country, while it looks like many nations have ruled that out.

Speed is crucial in a crisis, and in the case of a pandemic, even a delay of hours can mean the deaths of hundreds more—something Italy is tragically demonstrating now.

5. Be flexible.

“Be clear about your goal but be flexible about the process of achieving it.” —Brian Tracy

Throwing your weight behind a credible strategy is an excellent approach to a crisis… except when reality fails to cooperate.

If the strategy isn’t working, ask yourself: Is this because I haven’t given it enough time to play out, or is the strategy wrong? Knowing the answer isn’t easy; it’s more an art than a science, a skill that comes with experience.

Still, in many cases the situation will scream at you that your strategy is flawed and that you need to adjust course.

How to fail:

Napoleon believed that in any head-to-head battle he would crush the enemy, so he chased the Russians for 600 miles. But by September of 1812, the French never got their decisive victory.

He hoped to pin down the Russians first, right inside the border, then, before reaching Smolensk, then, at Borodino. But after passing each of those checkpoints, the enemy army was still mostly intact and taunting him, just out of reach.

His original strategy never had him moving past Smolensk in 1812, but he pushed on anyway, with winter approaching, like a man at a Blackjack table playing “just a few more hands” because his payday is only around the corner. By September he marched all the way to Moscow, a city deserted of inhabitants, but also of much needed supplies.

His strategy had clearly failed, but Napoleon occupied the city for a month, waiting for the Russian messenger with the note of surrender. He never showed.

How to win:

As long as Taiwan’s strategy was delivering results, they stuck to the plan. Until March 19th, the country had only around 100 reported cases of the virus, compared to its Chinese neighbor, with 81,000.

A day later, 27 new cases cropped up, with new cases in the double digits reported every day since then. What went wrong? Most of the new cases were imported from returning travelers. Reality had changed, and flexibility was now the order of the day.

Taiwan’s government immediately counseled its citizens not to travel abroad (apparently a few people missed the original memo), its capital city prepared for a lockdown, and flight transfers through nation’s airports were banned.

The country hasn’t yet radically altered its strategy, but it will be interesting to see whether that changes if the spike in new cases can’t be controlled.

6. Set an example.

“Example is leadership.” — Albert Schweitzer

There’s nothing better than a crisis to uncover a leader’s true character. For honorable people it will bring out compassion, integrity and courage. Unethical people will take advantage of the situation and start hoarding food and supplies to sell at a profit.

If you want to lead yourself and your team successfully through a crisis, you need to set an example for others to follow. A crisis requires that everyone to put forward their best efforts.

How to fail:

By October 1812, Napoleon had dithered in Moscow for a month, waiting for a peace treaty that never came. The city had been abandoned by its inhabitants, and three-quarters of it burned to the ground and looted.

Napoleon blinked. His army had dwindled to only 100,000 men, and with a brutal winter approaching, and the Russian army waiting to counterattack, he made the catastrophic decision to… run away.

When the Russians re-entered the city, they found that the French had blown up the Kremlin in an act of spite, defiled churches and left the dead unburied in the streets. Halfway home, news of a coup-d’état in Paris spiked Napoleon’s panic, and he abandoned his army to rush home to protect his throne.

Indecision, cowardice and pettiness is not a good look for a leader, and Napoleon’s example no doubt crushed his soldiers’ morale, and worsened the crisis.

How to win:

Good leaders won’t dither, panic or abandon the troops in a crisis. They demonstrate calm, communicate clearly, listen to their team and inspire them, and admit responsibility for mistakes.

The Taiwanese leadership did not tell its public that coronavirus discussions were “classified”—in fact they were unusually frank about the situation. Early on, both the minister of health and the vice president (who is luckily an epidemiologist) began holding press briefings daily, and the president’s office issued regular updates.

Unlike too many politicians around the globe who have quietly disappeared into self-isolation, Taiwan’s minister of health personally took command of the country’s Central Epidemic Command Center. That’s leadership!

Setting an example to follow not only gave the public clear instructions that has reduced the spread of the virus, but kept citizens’ morale up, and government approval ratings sky high.

Now’s your chance.

“I’m not a coward I’ve just never been tested. I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.” —The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

This is a call to all Stoics, Buddhists, new-age enthusiasts, self-described hustlers, go-getters and those who have ever aspired to greatness:

This is the chance you’ve been waiting for to show us who you are.

Nobody would wish this global pandemic on their worst enemies, and all good people of the world are grieving the mounting fatalities. We all wish the nightmare was over.

Yet here we are in the middle of the greatest crisis in a hundred years, and whether we like it or not, it will show each one of us who we truly are.

Are we sad, cowardly individualists—every man for himself, sitting on our hoard of guns and toilet paper—or the pinnacle of evolution, strongest together, looking out for each other?

Each one of us can choose to be a leader, in our own way, and in our own spheres of influence. Now you have the roadmap.

Show us that you’re up to the test.

Read next: Everything You Need to Know to Become a Great Leader

Photo by GaudiLab/

I help heart-led entrepreneurs start + grow businesses that improve the world.Instagram: @mpbizcoach