Coaching leaders in times of crisis: A practical guide

Executive and leadership coaches are needed more than ever before, and will see an increase in demand during and soon after the current crisis. Leaders in all organizations face massive challenges, and the following are only a few: how to handle their own overwhelm, how to motivate others who might be feeling afraid, how to plan for any number of likely scenarios, how to think strategically while still handling the daily fires, how to develop new ways of doing business, and how to take care of themselves with limited time and sleep. During and after the crisis, leaders want an objective sounding board, a safe place to vent and share concerns, and fresh perspectives.

For all of these reasons it is a good time to be a coach. We might not be on the front lines of saving lives, but we can help leaders find more energy, be more productive, and lead their teams more effectively.

I’ve been coaching leaders through this crisis, and also observing executive coaches as they coach leaders through the uncertainty and volatility they (and we all) face. Based on this, and general principles of coaching, following is a practical guide to coaching leaders in times of crisis.

First, the best news is that right now nothing is known. No one really knows how long the crisis will last or how it will unfold. This is good news for coaches who come from an executive or management background. The temptation for coaches with this background is to step in and offer advice, or steer the conversation where they think it should go. Now you can’t. Almost everything is unknown. You don’t need to know how to do the leader’s job, how the industry works, or much else (unless, of course, you are giving technical advice about the virus, which is not what we are discussing here). Whatever you thought you knew probably doesn’t apply. There is nowhere to go with a client except into the unknown. Pure coaching skills – listening, empathy, and asking powerful questions based on what the client is sharing — make the difference in this environment.

This also applies to coaches coming from academic, clinical, and scientific disciplines — let alone from new-age focused philosophies that are heavy on jargon and fluffy platitudes, but light on substance. Clients are freaked out right now. This is not a time to lecture them about how the brain works or about Heidegger’s ontological principles; it is not a time to use language that the client doesn’t use, understand, or care to learn right now. It is a time to listen, have the client feel heard, and let them guide the conversation.

Right now leaders’ minds are like those giant steam boilers you see in large buildings, and they are full to bursting with steam. A good coach can help the client vent that steam. Do this by listening, empathizing, and letting the client guide the conversation. This reduces pressure in the boiler. The client feels less stressed out, and is able to generate new ideas and perspectives.

The first, and most difficult step, in coaching leaders through a time of crisis is to get them to take time for a coaching conversation at all. One healthcare leader shared, “How can I spend time being coached? Phones are ringing 24 hours a day. My employees are panicking. My leadership team is panicking. We are overwhelmed and I don’t know how we are going to get through this….”

Based on what this leader is saying, it is not hard to argue that this is, in fact, the perfect time for coaching. This leader could use a few minutes to vent, prioritize, share their own concerns, and develop a plan to move forward — even a little. Spending just a little bit of time in a coaching conversation could help them find ways to be more productive, recharge, and cope. The trick is to know how to get the leader to agree.

Another metaphor: Think of leaders today like the passenger of a ship, and they have just fallen overboard. They are trying to stay afloat in stormy waters — big waves, pouring rain, cold water, lightning, sharks, you name it. As a coach, you are on the ship holding a life preserver. Even as the leader is flailing, your job is to find a way to get them that life preserver.

In the above example, how might you get the leader to welcome coaching?

Following are three approaches. The third approach is the one that has worked…

First, a sales pitch or persuasive argument won’t work. The leader doesn’t have room in their mind to hear it. They will avoid you or react negatively. However, in a couple of cases this week, I’ve had success with the “That’s exactly why…” approach: “That’s exactly why we should spend a few moments right now. While things seem out of control at the moment, by spending even a few minutes talking about what’s going on, you might find you get more energy and have ideas to get more done in less time. Would that be okay with you?”

A second approach is simply to ask permission: “Well, while we are on the phone together anyway, would you find value in talking about what’s going on — even for a few minutes?”

However, the best approach I have found is to Coach without letting on that you are coaching. Listen. Let them vent. Use appreciative, high-level questions. Encourage them to keep talking. Empathize — but authentically and without coming across as performing “check-the-box empathy.” I’ve found that when I, and other coaches, do this, the client starts talking and a coaching session begins organically. You can even see their voice tone, facial expressions, and body language change as they get out all of their fears, worries, and problems. Listening is the best way to get them to catch the life preserver.

Meanwhile, there is no list of questions or script that will work here. This can’t be formulaic. What leaders find valuable is someone to hear them, ask questions about where they want to go, and be there for them. For instance, if the leader says, “My people are panicking,” possible things to say/do next might be:

  •  Say nothing at all! Keep quiet and let silence be your question. This can be the best coaching question there is.
  • “Tell me more.”
  • “What would you want to talk about to help you address this?”
  • “Who is one person that you are especially concerned about?”
  • “What is one thing in your control that can make a difference?”
  • “What strengths do you have that can help in this situation?”

Or maybe none of these is exactly right, depending on the leader and their situation. This is where the art of being a coach comes into play, and where having practice makes a big difference. A good rule in coaching is that the client tells you what to say/ask next, if you listen well enough. With practice, this rule becomes much easier to demonstrate.

At the same time, just being engaged with the leader — listening, reflecting back what you are hearing, and letting them lead the conversation — makes as big a difference as what you say. Going back to the steam boiler image, this approach allows the client to vent steam from the boiler. It creates room for more productive ways of thinking. It also tends to reduce stress.

In some ways, coaching is easier in these times. The quality of coaching conversations I’ve been observing has gone up a lot when coaches are working with leaders coping with this crisis. In these cases, coaches and leaders are both standing in the unknown. We are on new ground. There isn’t much to do except listen closely. That makes all the difference.

Editor’s Note: If you agree that now is an important time to be a coach and want to get started, congratulations! We will do everything we can to help you succeed. Given the times, we will even offer you almost any monthly payment that works for your budget and peace of mind. Contact me directly today if you have reviewed our distance learning program (or any other program under Get Certified in the above navigation, are ready to start, and have any questions or want to discuss budget: or 941-539-9623. I am here on weekends, too, eastern time zone.



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