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By Wendy Lambourne, director, Legitimate Leadership.

In the midst of a strike, a shop steward told me, “Now the chickens will come home to roost!” He was saying the current fraught relationship had been made in the past and management’s poor historical relationship was about to come back and bite them.


A crisis confronts leaders with their past deeds. How their people respond is determined by whether, as leaders, they are seen to have previously been in the relationship to “give” or to “take”. Leaders who have put their people first, will have people who will respond tenfold and give whatever it takes to weather the storm. Conversely, leaders who have put the results first, should not be surprised if their people don’t come to the fore, give little if at all, and may even rebel or jump ship during the crisis.

In short, leaders determine whether their people will rally or scatter in a crisis by the way they have led them in the past.


Past actions cannot be undone. Only the present and the future can be changed. But how leaders engage with their people in the current crisis is all-important because as David Ulrich says, “The stress of a crisis magnifies actions and creates lingering memories”.  What leaders say and do during a crisis may be forgiven but will never be forgotten. There will be consequences to them of their actions for a long time to come.

A crisis however offers leaders a golden opportunity, if they take it, to reset the relationship with their people and take it to greater heights. This is because there are crucial moments in any crisis. What leaders do then can lead to an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship or create the conditions which will capture the hearts and minds of their people like never before.


In every interaction that leaders have with their people they should elect to do the right, rather than the expedient, thing. They should be compassionate or courageous, whichever is appropriate at the time.

To do so they should understand the following “laws” of human interaction between people in any situation:

  • There are only two options for any party; to act on the basis of what they want to “get” or what they choose to “give”. To act in pursuit of their own or others’ best interests.
  • When a party acts on what they want to “get” in an interaction, they are weak, not strong. They put themselves in a situation where others can withhold from them what they want. The more they want to “get” the more manipulable they become.
  • Any party is only in control of their side of the transaction and should therefore take care of that and not concern themselves with what they have no control over.
  • How any party acts in an interaction is a function of their maturity. Immature people will be concerned with meeting their own needs, getting what they believe they are entitled to and having their demands met. Mature people will focus on what they should be contributing, on doing their duty, on being values rather than needs driven.

Based on this, leaders in a crisis need to cease to want anything from their people – be it trust, willingness, loyalty or performance. They then need to do what is appropriate without trying to engineer an outcome.

It is appropriate for leaders to demonstrate gratitude to, and applaud, the “givers” in their charge – and to be intolerant of the

“takers”. They should reward those who go above and beyond in the crisis. And they should not acquiesce to the demands, or allow themselves to be manipulated by, those who are not willing to do their duty. They should insist that the “takers” do their bit to the best of their ability and hold them accountable for doing so.

Leaders will always be criticised in a crisis. But the more they rise above self-interest to do the right thing, the more their people will experience them as sincere. The more they are seen to be values rather than needs driven, the more they will be trusted.