From small business owners to global corporate leaders—for anyone who cares about their employees, customers, and business partners, this is a time of sleepless nights and soul-crushing tough decisions.

A friend acknowledged he cried when he had to tell his employees he had to lay them off—for now. “I don’t know if I’ll open again, but that’s my goal. I will do everything in my power to help these people when I can.

A client indicated she hasn’t slept in months over worrying about the health of people who soldier on in their essential business. “I invested everything I had in securing them safety garments and supplies, and I’m worried it’s not enough.

Yes, this is a time of hard decisions. It’s also a time for the softest of touches.

Mailing out termination notices isn’t exactly a soft touch as one individual encountered. “I was fired in the mail. I’m not sure what hurts more—the loss of income or that I worked for someone who didn’t have the courage and respect to tell me directly they had to fire me.

We burn a lot of cycles writing about what makes a great leader. In nightmarish situations such as the one we are experiencing now, the answer in my mind comes down to a few key behaviors

Five Key Behaviors of Great (Crisis) Leaders

1. Authentic Optimism Blended with Raw Determination

The word optimism throws some people. There’s false optimism—the proverbial sunshine pump. The CEO telling employees, “There will be no layoffs” when everyone knows layoffs are coming is destructive optimism.

The type that works in this environment includes an acknowledgment that “this sucks” blended with “we’re going to figure this out together.

2. A Fierce Bias Toward Action

As he moved into the PM role being vacated by Neville Chamberlin, one of the worries expressed about Churchill was that he was all-action in every direction. The critics got the “action” part right.

For the researchers, medical professionals, and inventors, action in support of the greater good drives them. For those on the front-lines helping the sick or responding to calls for help, the action is purpose.

While your firm or team might not be on the front-lines of the fight, you have customers and colleagues, and you play a role in our now struggling economy. Action in pursuit of problem-solving is the only thing that’s going to win the moment.

3. The Humility to Ask for Help

Great leaders understand they don’t have and don’t need to have all the answers. You can almost feel respect, trust, and even hope grow in real-time when the leader stares at her team and says, “Let’s figure this out together. What do you think are our best options here?
Asking for help comes from strength, not weakness.

4. Self-Confidence to Let Them Bring Ideas to Life

Lousy managers are gatekeepers for actions and initiative. They define their purpose in terms of control. Great leaders define their purpose in terms of enablement. “What can I do to help them move faster?” is their constant mantra.

5. Hard-Decisions, Soft-Touch

This one, to me, captures the essence of great leaders at this time. They accept their responsibility for hard decisions, and they reject depersonalizing the decisions and impact on others.

These leaders are the ones who cry over the pain created for those who lose their jobs. They lose sleep over finding ways to prevent more suffering. And they desperately want to help, and everyone knows it. “She had to lay us off, and while I’m worried about me, at that point in time, I felt worse for her. I can tell this hurts her to her core. I will try and move mountains for her if I get a chance in the future.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We all get a vote in how we lead others through adversity. A hard-decisions, soft-touch approach will define you as a leader for the balance of your career. While we’ll never be free of those who mail termination notices or employ other equally callous tactics, you get a choice. Make it the right one.

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