History is filled with stories of leaders who rise to the challenge of a crisis and those who crumble under its weight. How are leaders handling today’s crisis, and what can we learn from what they have said and done?

The coronavirus crisis has stretched and put those dimensions to the test. Leaders have had to protect the health of their people, maintain morale and business momentum, navigate demand shocks, and adjust strategy. And they have had to do it all remotely – knowing too that industry volatility and CEO turnover are highest in crises.

The future is now

Many CEOs have said that they are working simultaneously on today’s issues and on setting up their respective companies for success in the new reality. As economic activity returns, these CEOs are increasingly thinking through moves for a postvirus world. One CEO shared that his leadership team is now spending one-fifth of its time focused on the longer term, a larger share than normal. “You can’t just put out fires. The crisis brings opportunities. It unleashes a springboard for accepting changes,” suggested another CEO. “We’re looking to adapt how we work, making supply chains local instead of global. We are also changing how we get products to customers and how customers can interact with our products safely.”

The signals that matter most

CEOs have been forced to find new signals to understand the business, markets, and overall economy during the pandemic. With quarterly metrics all but meaningless in the chaotic early days, CEOs have looked to high-frequency data for signs of employee health, business activity, and future trends. “We’re seeing five years of change in five weeks, and that velocity is going to continue,” explained one CEO. “We don’t currently have forecasting capabilities for projecting demand in six to nine months or the ability to predict consumer changes across geographies, so we’ve moved to shorter-term targets,” added another.

People first

CEOs have recently had to address employee safety, anxiety, uncertainty, job security, performance expectations, and burnout – sometimes in the same conversation. It’s a tall task that demands clear action and communication. “We need an intentional plan to communicate with employees, customers, communities, and vendors on how to get through this together,” one CEO said. Another told us, “We gave an advanced bonus to our employees and a special award to thank people working in our stores; essential workers are our most important asset and we have to take care of them.”

Communication demands authenticity

The coronavirus upended whatever communications and employee feedback programs companies had in place, leaving the CEO as the communicator in chief and, in the words of one CEO, the “storyteller in chief.” CEOs have had to tell stories about safety, job security, demand shocks, and strategy. These are big roles to fill in the age of Zoom. One lamented, “I will forever be the ‘virtual CEO.’”

Without the familiar forum of face-to-face meetings, CEOs have tried to connect through remote channels. “I aspire to build a personal connection so my employees will know me on a personal level,” one CEO said. “A health crisis deserves a human response. People are looking for a vulnerable, calm, and clear-thinking leader.”

Leading through crisis

Most CEOs recognise that they are facing what will likely be the largest test of their tenures. Every word and action can inspire or be misunderstood. “This is an opportunity to train empathy, self-awareness, and breakout thinking,” one CEO said. “You need breakout thinking to see the future, and you need self-awareness and empathy to connect and understand your own purpose, the purpose of the company, and to know how to shape your company’s future.”

Leaders who embrace this challenge will be better prepared to create new, powerful opportunities to replace those robbed by the coronavirus.