Leading with care: An enlightened leader’s guide to navigating uncertain times

Here are a few strategies for honesty, accountability and self-care in times of turmoil.

Imagine you are leading a team at a well-respected mid-size organization with a public presence. Then one day, a major scandal emerges and the board of directors removes your entire executive leadership team, leaving only you to pick up the pieces. What do you do?

Or, what about this? You were recently promoted into a new management role at a fast-growing health care company. You are now responsible for the largest team of employees, who you care about, and serve as the main conduit to customers. Then, it comes out that your predecessor was falsifying customer data, inflating the share price and defrauding investors. What do you do?

Scandal, money problems, fraud – whether you like it or not, these are just a few of the challenges you may face leading others, whether you are a new manager, seasoned executive or business owner. But you don’t have to face these challenges from a blank slate, nor do you have to show up as a more ruthless, uncaring version of yourself.

What is leading with care?

In my podcast, “Care Work with Alida Miranda-Wolff,” I spend a lot of time defining what care and care work are, which has helped me identify a useful framework for thinking about what it means to engage in caring leadership. Specifically, to paraphrase the economist and scholar Nancy Folbre, care work is about connecting to other people in a way that helps them meet their needs.

The classic image of a care worker is typically a nurse or a home health care aide, individuals who literally take care of another person’s physical and emotional needs for a living. But in times of crisis, leaders must show up and help meet the needs of their employees, customers, board members, shareholders and communities.

With that in mind, caring leadership is all about how you understand, evaluate and serve the needs of others in your organizational orbit. Sounds easy enough, right?

Strategies for offering care in times of crisis

The problem, of course, is the nature of crisis. Financial downturn, employee fraud, community outrage – all these situations create high levels of stress that make showing up as our best selves difficult. In fact, we’re likely to see our amygdalas get hijacked, meaning we default to our fight, flight or freeze responses and start thinking only of survival strategies, rather than how to offer care. That’s why having a few tenets to live by is especially helpful.

  1. Tell the truth: In times of intense difficulty, one of the first things to fly out the window is trust. In fact, usually a crisis is accompanied by a major trust breach. As trust scholar Rachel Botsman has shown in her research, when we don’t have trust, the next best thing is transparency. When you make the facts known, people around you feel a greater sense of certainty and stability, even if those facts are unpleasant.

    But how much truth do you tell? The general rule is that impartial information is the worst kind because it leaves folks open to interpret and fill in with their greatest fears. Name exactly what happened and what you are doing about it to help meet your organizational community’s need for a grasp of what is transpiring.
  2. Don’t over-promise: Perhaps the greatest mistake I’ve ever made as a leader navigating crisis is over-promising, whether it’s that we won’t have to move forward with a layoff, will be able to tell employees about something that happened immediately or stated a hope for improved sales numbers as a fact.

    As much as you see the light at the end of the tunnel, resist the urge to “sell” or “promise” a better future, even if you believe in its coming. Stick only to what you know to be true and in motion. Even better, embrace the art of the caveat. Caveating gets a bad reputation because it seems indecisive and slippery. But the reality is that when the situation is uncertain, offering the caveats is necessary to follow the first tenet. “If” is not a dirty word.
  3. Invest in both accountability and assurance: Too much time is spent focusing on how you will hold yourself accountable to others as a leader without equally emphasizing the importance of showing people your accountability. You may be tempted to put your head down, swallow your fear and fulfill commitments without saying another word to your communities about it.

    But here’s the thing – if you don’t tell them, how will they know what you are doing? And how will they hold you to it when your priorities shift? The act of assurance – showing people how you are being accountable through active reporting – is vital to meeting their needs for consistency and support.
  1. Give yourself space: Being a leader is hard for many reasons, but in times of uncertainty, perhaps one of the hardest parts of caring leadership is remaining responsive to others while also trying to manage your own emotions, experiences and needs. Resist the temptation to be “on” and available 100 percent of the time and make sure to carve out space for yourself.

    Most likely, you’ll be holding onto greater burdens than those around you, whether financial or legal liabilities, public shaming or worse. Make sure you are not working twice as much just because the situation is twice as hard; rather, focus only on what wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it, and then focus on your own recovery with the time you have left.