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Leaders to learn from in times of crisis
Illustration by Shiwei Li

9 min read

Leaders to learn from in times of crisis

As they say, true leadership is forged in crisis. As we're tackling some of the toughest challenges ever, learn from the very best leaders of 2020. 

We all know that true character shines through during the toughest of times. The coronavirus pandemic, together with our renewed awakening to social injustice, have been some of the toughest leadership tests to date.

The unpredictable nature of crises means that it’s up to leaders to adapt and react on the fly. The past six months have forced us to be more flexible on how we approach problems, and through that, we’ve come up with creative solutions to help one another. In a crisis, we’ve found the most success with leaders who aren’t afraid to pivot, make plans to prepare for the long term, and selflessly support the community.

Oftentimes, we can’t control our circumstances, but we can define how we react and handle the toughest of situations. Even through the tragedies and difficult decisions, it’s been heartwarming and fascinating to see our wider society come together. Here are some takeaways we can learn from admired leaders and organizations; those who are rising to the challenge.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand: Caution, preparedness, and confidence

Timing is important as crises often happen without warning, requiring immediate responses. Especially in the context of a global pandemic when we’re battling a highly contagious virus.

As the pandemic quickly spread fear and threatened our health, Jacinda Ardern didn’t underestimate the challenge ahead and took strong action—early. When New Zealand had only 52 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Prime Minister swiftly ramped up her country’s restrictions on travel and movement. Her government’s approach to delivering clarity started from education, where they introduced a simple alert level framework that helped people grasp the consequences of the virus’ impact.

By addressing people’s concerns and clearly articulating her gameplan through transparent messaging, Ardern’s empathetic leadership has led to prompt assurance of financial support, and her ability to rally people to play their part is profound. In a press conference, she referred to her nation as a “team of five million” Kiwis. She thanked them for their efforts and sacrifices to protect their country, aligning citizens with her in a compelling way.

Beyond politics, she’s most admired for her compassionate character, which was instrumental in reassuring an insecure population. Did you know she’s taken a 20% wage cut as a gesture of solidarity with those who’ve lost their jobs? No wonder she’s the most popular Prime Minister of New Zealand in the past century; she puts kindness on the agenda against the turmoil caused by the lockdown. Her willingness to take bold action and respect for science is definitely refreshing and much needed.

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb: Empathetic, human-centered layoffs

It’s not news that layoffs are hard. Under a devastating pandemic, struggling economy, and disconnected society though, facing a layoff becomes much more heartbreaking.

In my books, how a company deals with difficult decisions like layoffs during these times will very much define its brand and story. I was very touched by the extent of care and compassion shown by Airbnb’s way of handling their recent layoffs.

Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky had to let go of 1,900 employees (an overwhelming 25% of its workforce) from the impact COVID-19 had on the travel industry. Despite the bad news he had to deliver, the leadership team chose to support departing employees to the best of their ability. His heartfelt note to all employees is a stellar example of compassionate and clear communication.

This open letter is one for the books. Chesky gets to the point about the unfortunate news but logically runs through how management approached the issue at hand, including all processes and considerations leading to the decisions made. From the get-go, he recognizes the heaviness of these decisions and reminds people that no matter what happens, they’re not a reflection of people’s work and ability.

The consequences were grim, but Airbnb went the extra mile to take care of those departing. This included a generous severance package, equity, healthcare (that included mental health), and a repurposed HR team dedicated to support ex-Airbnb employees in their job search, as well as a compiled talent directory for hiring companies.

Airbnb handled their layoffs with a high degree of transparency, compassion, and community support—while still being on-brand and driven by their core mission. Instead of resentment, many of those laid off even expressed gratitude to the company. For staff who are staying, this note provides some form of reassurance that management values every teammate and weighs out decisions with thorough consideration.

Ben & Jerry’s: Consistent speaking out and walking the walk 

Social advocacy requires persistence. And ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s has been at it for decades.

This powerful message from Ben & Jerry’s has been shared by hundreds of thousands who resonate with it. While many other brands and individuals were waking up to our society’s inherent racial injustice and reacting by posting a black square on social media, Ben & Jerry’s had more to say.

On June 2, the company issued a powerful message titled “We must dismantle white supremacy” quickly after the situation of George Floyd came to light. The strong, direct statement condemned systemic racism and included comprehensive requests for the government. They consistently followed through with more reactions on key dates related to the cause: Juneteenth, Black equal pay day, and more.

But the main point here is, Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t just talk the talk. They have an active corporate activism department, an extremely rare occurrence in the corporate world.

When Unilever acquired the company back in 2000, the purchasing agreement even included a clause of a $1.1 million budget per year for Ben & Jerry’s to spend on community-oriented projects. It’s no wonder that this ice cream brand is granted B Corp status, recognized to be creating positive social impact beyond its product.

It’s incredibly difficult as a company to speak out and act on social issues, but it’s essential. There’s the obvious fear of losing profit, but also public accountability when there’s misalignment between proclaimed commitments, policies, and actions. Many companies have been outed for offering low wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination towards racial minorities after carefully crafting a Black Lives Matters statement.

Ben & Jerry’s genuine desire to push social change is deeply rooted in its decades of action. The company has taken a stance on nearly every major social issue these last three decades, and have tried to materialize those values internally through sourcing ethically in its supply chains and paying employees fairly.

Thinkific and Unbounce: Supporting customers relentlessly

This isn’t business as usual for anyone. But for industries that are still growing through the pandemic, we’ve seen palpable acts from companies to step up and champion success for their customer communities.

With an influx of new entrepreneurs and independent service providers, the online course platform Thinkific has been pivotal in helping business operations transition to the digital world. To make it easier for existing and new customers, they’ve ramped up support by providing free live training sessions to help them stay connected with their communities.

Software company Unbounce has also offered companies in the healthcare, education, and nonprofit sectors to use their service at no cost. They’re also providing strategic consultations to offer guidance and personalized solutions for local small businesses.

Aritzia and Twitter: Commitment to their employees

A great employer remains committed to the wellbeing of their employees even through the toughest of times. By frequently checking up on how employees are doing, leaders can acknowledge we all have different needs and provide resources accordingly.

On top of shifting all support workers to working remotely, Aritizia kept paying its retail storefront workers even when stores shut down for over three months. They did this by starting up the Aritzia Community Relief Fund, donating relief packages to frontline workers but also raising money to provide financial continuity to their employees directly affected by Covid-19.

Twitter was all over the headlines when the company announced that they’ve made the shift remote work forever. They also handed out a budget of $1000 per employee to top up on equipment to make for a comfortable work arrangement at home. While people are grateful to keep their jobs during a pandemic, the fact is we all need a little help to integrate comfortably into the “new normal".

Everyone can take action as a community leader

We’ve seen so many companies rise up to the occasion and serve the wider community. The beautiful thing is that everyone can contribute and play a part.

No matter how small your organization is, there’s a way to lead and make a change. Local distilleries here in British Columbia have nimbly stepped up to produce hand sanitizers for front line workers to address the shortage in supplies. It’s also impressive to see 3D printing enthusiasts producing ventilators, open sourcing their designs. Other companies have also modified their production line, collaborating with competitors to increase the supply of medical equipment during these desperate times.


True leaders are forged in crisis. The best qualities of a leader during tough times revolve around decisiveness, communication, and empathy.

As we all continue to navigate these uncertain circumstances, it’s up to us as leaders to stay committed to our people and mission. By staying transparent and prepared, we’ll resolve our problems with help and trust from our wider community. But most of all, what brings us together will be our compassionate hearts and listening with empathy.

PS: If you’d like to add your voice about what we need to see in leaders today, join us for Conversations at Work on September 3. Subscribe here for updates.


More on crisis communications? Check out the blog below!

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Faye Wai

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