Leading through Disruption: Embrace Your Own “Leadership Summits”

By Cathy McCullough

“Calamity is the test of integrity.” – Samuel Richardson

Never are the Five Characteristics of Great Leaders more relevant than when going through a leadership during disruptiondisruption. The calmness of the sea can change in the blink of an eye. When that happens, the impending storm is deceptively closer than it seems to appear. Wise captains have learned not to argue with the truth that’s before them; instead, take action.

How do you “act now” in a disruption? Be a leader.

The five characteristics of great leaders will stand the test of time and will get you through the toughest of circumstances. Leading an organization through normal ups and downs is a natural part of life. Leading people through extreme disruption, however, requires a heightened sense of firm-footedness and confidence. It’s during disruption when people need leadership the most, so how should you be “showing up” each and every day? What is it that people need from you that’s any different?

Leading Through Disruption: Thoughts & Resources

While COVID-19 has caused severe disruption on all markets, remember that it is an ongoing issue and not just an event. I share with you here a leadership lesson from William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions:

"A leader's job isn't to manage 'the event;' a leader's job is to manage the transition."

In tough times, I've found that it's helpful to have people around me that prompt my thinking. In such severe times, we're naturally focused on a lot of things—many of which are not so pleasing. We can easily let our minds wander and lose focus. Now more than ever, your employees need your steady and focused leadership.

Therefore, please accept the following as a way for me to reach out and help you clear the fog a bit. Ideally, use this guidance as a touch-point—as a resource for doing what you need to do as a leader at this disruptive moment in time:

1. Define your Own Leadership Strategy. Before you can do anything meaningful, you need to stop; just slow down. Get centered, first and foremost, as a leader. Define your own leadership strategy first, then allow others to follow.

If you’re harried, then so will be those around you. If you ignore the truth, then so will be those around you. If you panic, then so will be those around you. If you run from hard decisions, then so will be those around you.

The first step as you wade into the rough waters of disruption, then, is for you to get centered. You'll do this initially in the quiet of your own space; but first, grant yourself the space and the time to think.


leadership development

2. Host Your Own "Leadership Summits." Communication and alignment are imperative during disruption. Once you’ve gathered your own thoughts about your leadership, then think about hosting several of your own “Leadership Summits” on a regular basis, at least until the disruption begins to wane. Do this in addition to your Weekly Adjustment Meetings (WAMs). WAMs are for your core executive team. Leadership Summits would be cross-functional gatherings of key leaders throughout your organization. You need to stay connected as leaders. Connect with your core leadership team to share with them, collectively, how your company will lead through this disruption, and begin cascading your thought leadership to other leaders within your company. Some questions/topics to consider:

  • What are our expectations?
  • How can we use this time to truly live our Core Values?
  • What words or phrases should our leaders use so that a coherent and consistent message is heard?
  • How will we structure our collective time together while leading through this disruption?
  • What do I want leaders in this company to be looking for?
  • What are some ideas for them as they lead their own teams?
  • What hard questions might we expect, and what are our answers to those questions?

Define what leadership consistency looks like. I suggest you implement cross-functional "Leadership Summits" promptly and more often that what's typical for you. The degree to which you pull through this disruption as a cohesive organization is the degree to which your leaders are on the same page.

3. Define Your Strategic Shifts. If you have a written and well-developed strategy, review it with your leadership team (which is perfect content for one of your Leadership Summits).

  • Does our 3 year business plan need to be adapted? Do they need to be put on hold for the moment?
  • What needs to shift due to the current reality?
  • What's the ugly truth that we probably want to ignore?
  • How are we going to respond to that truth?
  • What shifts do we need to make?
  • What are some ideas for what we should be doing during this disruption?
  • What will set us up to come out of this better than the competition? What are they not doing that we could be doing?
  • What are ideas for how we can meet the needs of our customers, many of whom are also dealing with this web of disruption?

Battles aren't won by winging it; they're won because of a thoughtful and precise definition of our strategic intent for this moment in time. They’re also won by facing the brutal truth—and dealing with it. While battles rarely go exactly as planned, having a battle plan gives the foundation within which flexibility can occur. Without a plan as a framework, though, flexibility becomes chaos.

4. Delegate and Empower. Humanize your organization. After all, everyone in your company is in this thing together. Getting through it is not about “you” or “me.” It’s about “all of us.” In the best of times, people want leadership, and people really want leadership in times of disruption when everything seems unsteady—when we all have more questions than answers. However, they want the right kind of leadership.

Command and control is ineffective in good times, and it only continues to add to the frustration in not-so-good times. You simply have to focus on creating an even stronger sense of team orientation. Get ideas, thoughts and suggestions from your people. Let them create updated systems and processes that are going to strengthen the company to get through this difficult time. Free up your own time by empowering your people to do what they do best, every single day. This is the only way that you can apply your time toward the more strategic navigations that need to take place.


5. Monitor Movement. When you’ve defined the strategic shifts necessary, then track how things are going. At each of your Leadership Summits, review your strategic shifts. What’s going well? What’s not going well? What are we going to do about it?

If you use the Rhythm software, then you’re already ahead of the curve. You’re set for the transparency that’s needed for not only strategic alignment, but also for alignment in thinking. If you don’t use Rhythm, then think about investing in it for at least your core leaders so they can be ‘in this thing together.’

6. Make Tough Decisions (with Empathy). Many of you will have to make some tough decisions during this disruption. These decisions will be as good as they can be if you’ve made such decisions based on thoughtful conversation. Collective intelligence is one of your most valued resources, so use it.

When tough decisions are made, create your strategy for sharing those decisions with your people. As leaders, get aligned around several key questions, such as:

  • How will we deliver this message? What does that entire pathway look like?
  • Our people will be impacted by this hard decision, so how might we continue to engage them as we move forward?
  • Since things seem so bleak, what do our people need? (Hint: They need the truth, delivered in the right way. They also need to know you care.)
  • What can we, as leaders, do so that our people see we care?

7. Reach Out for Resources. While leading through the maze of disruption, it’s easy to get side-tracked. We don’t even see the resources that are right in front of us. Here are a few resources you might find useful to prompt your thinking so you can respond sooner vs. later:

  • Use Winning Moves as a way to prompt your team’s thinking around what your 3-year strategic plan should be coming out of this current disruption.
  • As noted above, if you’re not already a Rhythm Systems software subscriber, then request a demo. There’s even an Executive Team Only software package for maintaining focus and alignment.
  • Partner with an Executive Coach to jump-start your thinking and to keep you focused and disciplined. Don’t hesitate to contact me at

8. Brace Yourself. Getting through this disruption won’t be easy. It’s already wreaking its own havoc, but the brutal fact is: It’s here. It’s not fair, and it’s not right—but it’s a reality nonetheless. Remain steady; consistently circle back to #1 in this article, and grant yourself the space and time to think all along the way.

You’ll get through this, you’ll learn from this, and your organizational immune system will be stronger for this. More than any other time in your life, now is the time to be a leader.


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Check out these additional leadership resources:

Why You Need a Peak Performance Plan for Your A-Players

Leadership Accountability Definition in Management

Level 5 Leadership - How to be a Level 5 Leader

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

How top CEOs Close the Strategy Execution Gap

Follow Up: The Key To Leadership Development

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images