How to lead your team through times of disaster

With emergency events threatening communities across Australia, your leadership is needed the most right now. There have been so many opinions across social media about leadership, those praising positive and effective leaders who are admired for their strength and compassion. Yet equally, leaders being criticised for not connecting with community members who have experienced these traumatic events.

As leaders in business, we are in a position to influence how others feel when they return to work. In some parts of the East Coast, that might still be a few weeks away. Business everywhere, however, must go on. It's imperative for rebuilding our communities. 

Being prepared as a leader for what to do and what to say to your people when they return is crucial. 

According to Anthony Robbins, we are all driven by a requirement to fulfil our basic human needs. These needs are universal, it's what makes us tick and drives all human behaviour. Capturing the following core needs will help your team members to feel supported by you in these times of high uncertainty.


We all need to feel important, acknowledged and validated. When someone has experienced such a high intensity of emotions, they want and need to be heard.

What NOT to do when leading your staff during this time

Make it about you or someone you know. In the past, I used to think that by saying ‘I know exactly how you feel, I/my mother/friend/neighbour/colleague has experienced that too and this is how I felt' it helped the other person know that deeply understood how they felt. But I have since learnt in my training as a coach that this is not helpful. By doing so you are unknowingly saying their story isn't important and they may then be reluctant to open up more.


Actively listen to your team member. People want to tell their story and be acknowledged for the emotion they are feeling. The best way to do this is to hear their words, speak from your heart acknowledging their feelings and let them talk. Saying something like ‘I can't imagine what that would have been like, I'm sorry you experienced this. Of course, you are feeling [x], I would expect that from what you have gone through'. This helps to validate their experience and be seen by you. Make it all about them.


Every human being needs love and connection. For many, they receive this from friends and family, plus the outpouring of love from strangers. Acts of kindness across the globe have helped people feel a sense of connection to others, even those they have never met before. In the workplace, connection to work colleagues is needed as well.

What NOT to do when leading your staff during this time 

Be distracted by everything else that's going on. I remember from my days as a leader in Centrelink dealing with emergency events, there are so many moving parts and so many things to be across. It was sometimes hard for me to be fully present to my team members and I know that my distraction would have led to a disconnect between myself and the person I was with.


Make yourself available to your people. Delegate any tasks that need to be done and create space to actively listen to the person in front of you. Put your full focus on them and listen to what they are saying, instead of thinking about what you want to say. Demonstrate empathy for what they are going for. Check-in regularly to see how they are doing – a phone call, a text message, or taking time out of your day to speak to someone face to face can help them feel connected. Remember, it's equally important to stay in touch with your team members who have been not able to come to work yet. You might think you are ‘bothering' them, see it instead as an opportunity to let them know you are thinking of them.


With so much ongoing uncertainty for people across areas of fire threat, people will be craving certainty. When they return to work, they will likely do so with a strong desire to be helpful, feel like they are useful, able to contribute and ultimately perhaps escape the unknown limbo of waiting for the next barrage of warning messages.

What NOT to do when leading your staff during this time

Diminish their ability to contribute. I recall wanting to protect my staff and help them, so would be sending a strong message to them that they weren't needed at work, and that they should take more time off. However, I've learnt through experience that it's important not to make decisions for others. This disempowers them at a time when they want and need to feel empowered.


Once appropriate welfare checks have been done, accept that they are back to work by their own choice and allow them to contribute. Provide tasks that they can complete, that they are good at and that play to their strengths. Check-in often to see how they are going. Rather than micro-manage them, set them up to succeed by providing a clear outcome and a system or structure they can follow.

Take the time to plan your schedule to allow you time to spend with your team members. Strong leadership is needed everywhere right now, know that by meeting the core needs of your team members you will be making a difference.


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