Leading through Times of Crisis with Empathy and Resilience

As uncertainty stretches out ahead of us, organizational leaders around the world must find ways to continually transition through crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes and other disruptive events.

The Japanese language has two characters for the word crisis. One means dangerous and the second is opportunity. How can you as a leader embody empathy for the concerns, worries and fears of employees, yet embrace opportunities? Renowned business leader John Maxwell has said, “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.”  How can you be a leader of influence during this time?  

Preparation is Critical 

There are three Ps to keep in mind as you lead through times of crisis. 

  • Position – How you start determines how you finish. As a leader, your position is above the fray. Find ways to place yourself here. 

  • Perspective – What is yours as you prepare to move into the next phase? One suggestion is compassion mixed with expansion. Meaning, the ability to empathize with the variety of emotions your team may be facing while keeping your goals and boundaries in place. 

  • Purpose – What do you feel yours may be? Many leaders are driven by a desire to create and maintain a safe workplace atmosphere, where staff can be heard, and remain accountable for deadlines and productivity. 

Your position, perspective and purpose will be like a lighthouse. They will keep you grounded and help orient others.  

Understanding Types of Change 

As we’ve all become aware, change is the one thing we can count on. However, there are different kinds of change. 

  • Imposed Change – Changes that happen to you, over which you have little or perhaps no control (i.e. quarantine mandates, policy changes, etc.). 

  • Designed Change – Changes you decide to make and then attempt to implement; the main difference is that you have control or influence over the process (i.e. accepting a new job, pursuing further education, getting married, etc.). 

  • Growth Change – Changes that you encourage or allow through your personal transformation (i.e. workplace changes you choose to support, relationships, etc.). 

Ask yourself the following question, “What types of challenges do people experience during times of imposed change?” Think about the specific challenges of this pandemic, social unrest, natural disasters, and other unexpected situations. What comes to mind for you? For your returning staff? 

Common responses may include uncertainty, uncontrolled expectations, low motivation, resistance to change, stress, frustration, fear, role ambiguity and maintaining productivity. These reactions to change are normal and to be expected. Validating these emotions in yourself and your employees will help with moving through the stages of change.  


Distinguishing Change vs. Transition 

Next, it’s important to distinguish the differences between change and transition. Change is external or situational (i.e. the new office, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy). Transition is the internal or psychological process people go through to come to terms with their new situation. Change happens to things and transition happens to people. 

Right now, you’re leading your team and organization through a transformative time in society, while also personally experiencing several changes and transitions. As a leader, it is important for you to know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. Do what you do well, empower and value others, have a positive attitude toward others and establish trust with your team. People want leaders they can follow, especially right now. 


Embrace adaptability. Change will inevitably continue. So, what can we do as individuals? 

  • Understand that transition can be difficult. Therefore, people need to take steps to care for themselves and their families. 

  • Realize that someone’s thoughts and feelings about an event may determine their actions. 

  • Control what you can and release what you can’t. 

  • Maintain connections at work and in your personal life that help support and re-energize you. 

  • Realize that even in tough times, it’s necessary and beneficial to the organization and one’s career to continue to do good work. 

  • Maintain perspective. Even if the change brings about a great deal of challenge, there are always ways to advance and grow. 

  • Adaptable people rely on inner personal resilience and believe they have the skills and resources to make the change. 

Resilience is the human capacity to deal with, overcome, learn from or even be transformed by adversity. It’s the ability to bounce back or be flexible. As a leader, you can encourage resiliency by summoning the traits we most admire in other agents of transition. 

Transitional Stages & Action Plans 

Below is a graph showing the emotional transition people make in response to upheaval or change. It’s important to understand where you are as well as where those you lead are. Keep in mind that no two people respond and transition to change in the same way. It is a highly individual, personal process. 

The Stages of Transition model (adapted from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on personal transition in grief and bereavement) describes the four stages people typically go through as they adjust to change. 

Transitional stage & action plan line graph  

When a change is first introduced, people’s initial reaction may be shock or denial as they react to challenges to the status quo (Stage 1). 

Once the reality of the change starts to hit, people tend to react negatively and move to Stage 2, resistance or fear. Commonly in this stage, people feel angry and actively resist or protest against the changes. It’s been said by many religious leaders and observed in the fields of psychology and social work that ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Sometimes people turn their anger outwards, sometimes inwards. 

Stage 3, exploration, is where pessimism and resistance give way to some optimism and a willingness to explore. 

By Stage 4, people have come to accept the changes and start to embrace them. They rebuild their ways of working. Only when people get to this stage can the organization really start to reap the benefits of change. 

It’s important to realize that people may vacillate between stages. For example, they may get information during Stage 3 that feels threatening and move back to Stage 2. In addition, people may get stuck in a stage, especially Stage 2, and possibly never move to adaptation. Or, if the change is welcomed, people may move straight to adaptation. 

How people respond is directly related to factors such as their personal history with change, the amount of support they feel and their ability to adapt. Your team members could fall anywhere along this continuum. 

As a leader, focus on strengths and let your employees know what you notice them doing well. Encourage exemplary attitudes. Look for ways to highlight and support the positive ways your team is coming together. Finally, model the mindsets and actions you want your team to emulate. 

Team manager looking over paperwork  


Your team wants to be led right now. They are watching, waiting and wondering. Model what you want emulated and what you want to be replicated. Be flexible and bend with the changes. Don’t be beholden to a highly specific outcome. Space is your friend, it’s for the unexpected, for voices to be heard, for safe ways of operating and reaching goals. Create boundaries around time, personal space, deadlines and expectations. 

In a shifting landscape, your team wants to know where they stand, and if possible, where they are headed in the weeks, months and even years to come. Being available and visible as a leader will help through transitions and so will your words. Choose them wisely. They create the climate you and your team work in and create in. Words help build worlds. We are all in a phase with a great opportunity, not only to recreate a healthy world but to thrive amid change and transition. 

Jennifer Sumiec will expand on the topic of leading with resilience and empathy during a session on November 16 at the C2HR CONference. Register now to attend 

In addition, there are numerous articles on crisis leadership in the C2HR Knowledge Center