How to Plan for a Crisis (3 Keys to Actually Being Ready for Whatever Leadership Throws at You)


How do you plan for a crisis?

From one standpoint, the short answer is you can’t.

The better answer, though,  is that you actually can prepare for a crisis.

First up, here’s why it’s easy to fall for the lie that you can’t prepare for a crisis.

Crises are inherently unpredictable, uncertain and often you have little notice. That’s true of global crises and of the million small crises (like a key staff resignation, a personal health issue or interpersonal drama) that show up regularly on your radar as a leader, and as a human.

So it’s easy to throw up your hands and resign yourself to believing there’s nothing you can do to get ready for a crisis.

That’s not the whole story though….

While you can’t predict a crisis, you can prepare for one so you’re far more ready when (not if) they happen. Because they will happen. Regularly.

Here are three ways you can be much more prepared for your next crisis, whatever it is and whenever it happens.

1. Expect It. Leadership Is Crisis Management. 

It’s easy to live with an idealized view of leadership in your mind.

  • Your team is getting along perfectly.
  • Nobody’s leaving or quitting.
  • Vision communicated is vision received.
  • There’s no looming global crisis that will disrupt your mission.
  • The financial picture is strong.

Of course, that world doesn’t exist.

Even in ‘normal conditions” you might get a few weeks or months of conditions like that, but in a much deeper sense, as much as you hate it, life is crisis. So is leadership.

As a result, every leader is a crisis leader because leadership, most days, involves crisis management. From the person who lands on your doorstep needing help, to the staff member who’s struggling, to someone in your organization who suffered a heart attack,  to a competitor who’s surging ahead of you, to an unexpected drop in revenue…crises pop up in unexpected places all the time.

There’s almost always an unexpected challenge or problem you’re facing. Throw the chaos of the world in general into the mix, and no wonder you feel so unstable.

So what do you do with this?

Strangely, you should expect crisis. Regularly. Weekly.

Leaders who fail to plan for a crisis plan to fail.

I get it, I’d rather live in a world where there is no crisis. But that world doesn’t exist. At least not here.

If you quit your job today because you just can’t stand the pressure, you just sign up for a different set of crises at your new job tomorrow. That’s life.

With that expectation set, let’s get practical.

2. Under-Schedule Your Week. Seriously…Try It. 

Much of the stress of crisis management springs from the fact that crisis always shows up as ‘extra’.

That three-hour meeting that wasn’t in your calendar where you attempted to tackle the emerging situation.

The half-day trip that ate up Wednesday so you could solve the problem in person.

That extra hospital visit to a sick board member you weren’t planning on making.

The restless night you had tossing and turning because you couldn’t stop thinking about the situation.

All of that is extra. You weren’t planning on it.

Add to the mix that your week is already back-to-back meetings and deadlines and suddenly your whole life moves into triple overdrive. It’s an unsustainable pace.

But just because you weren’t planning on a crisis doesn’t mean you can’t anticipate it.

The best way to practically handle the hundred unexpected things that pop up on a regular basis is to routinely under-schedule your week.

Let me repeat that: under-schedule your week.

The easiest way to do that is to look back on what your last few ‘ideal’ weeks (i.e. weeks that were really great) felt like. There’s a mathematical formula hidden in those ideal weeks that is a key to giving you the margin to tackle crises.

For me, the math works this way. When I have 12-15 commitments in a week, I consider my week full. Those commitments include routine meetings, ad hoc meetings, and even personal meetings I’m doing for fun.

Why 12-15? Well..

If I have more than 15 commitments in a week, I start to feel time-pressured and overwhelmed. I also have very little room left for the unexpected.

If I have fewer than 10-12, I grow restless and start to feel bored.

That’s just me.

Your number will be different, but you can find it by figuring out what your ideal conditions are for leading well.

When you look at my week, it’s underwhelming. It means that about 20-25 hours of my week are wide open. I’ll easily fill that time with writing, planning, and even routine things like email and helping out with projects from direct reports. But the point is I’m not overscheduled. I have margin.

Here’s the point: when a crisis, large or small, pops up, you already have time built in to take the extra call, book the meeting, spend some time thinking about it, and margin available to tackle that.

Think of your calendar a little like you would a financial emergency fund. Nobody wants their furnace to break, but when it does, to have money set aside for emergencies is a wonderful feeling.

To have time set aside for crises, surprises, and last-minute things is a valuable strategy.

The goal? To have the margin to tackle whatever life and leadership throw at you. And these days, it’s throwing a lot at us leaders.

Will that prepare you for March 2020 and a global pandemic? Nope, it won’t. Nothing really got us ready for that.

But it will prepare you to tackle almost everything else. And give you some hope that every week doesn’t have to be crushing.

3. Master The Art Of Saying No (Nicely) 

A final way to be ready for whatever leadership throws at you is to master the art of saying no.

Without a strategy for saying no, you default to yes, and your life vaporizes with other people’s priorities being realized rather than yours. Your inability to say yes is the main reason your calendar gets crammed up week after week.

You realize, of course, that saying no to good things allows you to say yes to great things, but you cave again and say yes to a stupid meeting, which causes you to miss your son’s football game because crisis management has pushed your work schedule into the evening once again.

One of the keys to saying no is to develop a filter for what you say yes to.

Paraphrasing Greg McKeown from his classic book,  Essentialism, to determine whether you should do something, rate it on a scale from 0-10. If it’s not a 9, it’s a zero. (Greg recently interviewed me for his podcast by the way—you can listen here.)

The challenge with most leaders is that we know how to say no to really bad ideas and opportunities. There aren’t a lot of 2s and 3s you say yes to. But most leaders’ calendars get crowded with 6s, 7s, and 8s. Which leaves little room left over for anything else.

So, if it’s not a 9, it’s a zero.

If you’re looking to free up calendar space, that will help. Suddenly you’ve got margin, some of which will inevitably fill up with whatever that week brings. Which is exactly what margin is for.

Wondering how to say no and not be seen as a jerk or inaccessible?

I’ve got a whole section on mastering the art of saying no and categorical decision making in my latest book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working In Your Favor.

You Deserve To Stop Living At An Unsustainable Pace.

Take an honest look at the pace that you’re currently living at. Could you do this forever? Would you want to?

For most people, the answer is no. So many leaders feel overwhelmed, overworked and overcommitted.

At Your Best gives you a proven strategy that will lift you out of the stress spiral to finally do what you want to do—grow you organizations, advance you careers, launch new ventures, be far more present at home, and take regular time off.At Your Best will help you:

  • – Replace chronic exhaustion with deep productivity.
  • – Break the pattern of overpromising and never accomplishing enough by clarifying what matters most and restructuring your day around it.
  • – Master the art of saying “no” without losing friends or influence.
  • – Develop a personalized plan to recapture each day so you can break free from the trap of endless to-do’s.

Join thousands of leaders around the world who have started thriving at work and at home as you discover how to be at your best.

Order At Your Best (my latest book) today. 

What Helps You Plan for Crisis?

Obviously, there’s a lot more that could help you plan for a crisis. These are three strategies that have helped me.

What do you do that’s been effective? Scroll down and leave a comment!


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