How To Handle Difficult Situations As A Leader: 17 Essential Tips

17 Essential Steps On How To Handle Difficult Situations As A Leader

As a leader, you will face difficult and challenging situations. These could range from a crisis you must deal with to financial issues, technological change, and more.

As a leader, it’s up to you to lead during this time. Your team will follow your actions.

What steps should you take during challenging times as a leader? How should you as a leader handle difficult situations?

In this article, we discuss 17 tips on how to handle difficult situations, both what to do and what not to do. The exact method will depend on the situation, but many of these principles are applicable in all situations.

Let’s dive in.

How to handle difficult situations as a leader?

1. Embrace reality (don’t ignore it)

Sometimes competition rises up or technology changes and the leaders of an organization just stick their heads in the sand and ignore it. They want things to keep going the way they were, they fear what might happen, so they pretend it isn’t.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work, and all it does is speed up the failure of that company.

Instead, embrace reality. If it’s ugly, it’s ugly. But you’ve got to know. You can’t face it effectively unless you face it and see what it looks like.

Embrace it.

2. Stay calm and composed (and lead by example)

As a leader, you need to stay calm and composed during the situation.

Your people follow your lead. If you panic, they will panic. If you act hastily, they will act hastily. And, when you panic, you often make hasty and poor decisions that hurt instead of help.

Stay calm and composed. It models to your team how to respond and it helps you make better decisions.

Also Read: 75 Common Leadership Mistakes (That You Could Be Making Right Now)

3. Step back and see the big picture

When challenging situations happen, it can be easy to get stuck in the details of what is happening. The problem is, when you are stuck in the details, it’s hard to see the big picture and how elements affect each other.

As the leader, it’s your job to look at the big picture.

Step back and look at the situation. What happened? What’s going on? What led to it? How is it affecting business now? How will it be in the future? How is it affecting other areas of your business?

By stepping back and looking at the big picture, you can more effectively lead your team through and to the right details and prioritize what’s most important and what will have the most impact.

4. Study, learn about the situation, and get data

How to handle difficult situations - Study learn about the situation and get data

Before making a decision or taking action, you need to make sure you understand the situation. What happened? How did it happen? What led to it? How is it affecting you and your company?

The better input you have, the better of a decision you can make, and the better you can move through that difficult situation.

5. Gather input

As you learn about the situation and as you start making plans, it’s good to gather input from your team and from those who are directly facing the problem.

Too many leaders feel they have the answers and don’t ask, and they do that to their detriment.

Ask for input. Listen. Gather ideas. Doing so will help you make the best decision and help you solve the issue.

6. Look at past/similar situations

Think about and look for past situations that are similar to that you or your company have gone through (or even other companies who have or are going through a similar situation). What went well? What didn’t?

How was it handled?

Examining this can help you gather ideas and possibly provide a path forward (and possibly steps not to do).

7. Take responsibility

You have to take responsibility. The need for taking responsibility or ownership may vary according to the situation, but either way, take responsibility for solving the problem.

If you messed up or your team messed up, own up to it. Apologize and work to fix it.

Don’t make excuses, don’t blame, and don’t try to put it off. Take responsibility and make it happen.

It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is (too often we focus on finding someone to blame instead of working to fix or help people learn from it), what matters is resolving the issue and learning from it.

8. Communicate quickly and frequently

How to handle difficult situations - Communicate quickly.

During challenging times, leaders should communicate openly, transparently, quickly, and frequently. As a leader, effective communication is critical.

Especially if it is something that affects your employees, the faster and more open you are about the situation, the more trust and confidence your employees will give you.

When you try to hide or avoid communicating, it builds distrust, worry, and other people’s versions of what happened will circulate, which are often not positive.

Also Read: Essential Communication Skills For A Company Leader

9. Make timely decisions

Once you’ve understood the situation and gathered input, it’s time to make a decision and take action.

You don’t want to be too hasty to decide and not get enough information to understand the situation, but you also don’t want to take too long.

It’s likely you will never know 100% of the information, and you will never know 100% what the outcome of your decision will be.

One question to ask yourself is this: what is the cost of not deciding now? If the cost is too high to find more information, then go ahead and decide.

Also, you don’t have to make one big swooping decision and that’s it. Making a series of small decisions/experiments and adjusting as you go is an excellent strategy in many cases.

10. Do the right thing, even if it hurts

Whatever the situation you’re in, do the right thing. That’s non-negotiable. Even if it hurts, even if it costs you money, and even if it may hurt your brand, do the right thing. In the long run, it’s worth it.

11. Be honest

Once people know you have lied to them, you’ve lost. Your trust is diminished, and you’ll have a hard time getting it back.

The best policy is to always be honest and truthful, to your employees and to the public.

12. Create effective plans

Once you decide on the direction, plan out your course of action. Decide who is doing what.

But keep it flexible. As time progresses, you get data from your actions, learn more information, and adjust as you need.

13. Focus on long-term and short-term

Be careful about focusing too much on short-term results. Sometimes we can try to “solve” the problem, and it’s “solved” for the moment, but long-term it hurts us greatly.

In the same way, you may need to focus on the short term as well. If you are in a cash crunch, and you found a way to prosper in a year highly, that won’t matter if you are out of business.

Focus on both short-term AND long-term.

14. Learn from the situation

Once you get through the situation (and even while you are going through it), take time to reflect and examine it.

What happened? How did it happen? What can we do differently? What can we learn from this? What can we do differently in the future?

Take time to reflect and learn so that you not only try to avoid the situation and challenges in the future but hopefully, it is something that could help you improve now.  

15. Show empathy and take care of your employees/team

How to handle difficult situations - Show empathy

The situation may affect different people in your organization negatively. Don’t ignore or brush it off. Show empathy. Listen to others. Show understanding. Help in ways you can.

This not only can help people through that time but can build loyalty and trust as well.

16. Help your team to succeed

If you want your team to effectively handle the situation, make sure they have the resources, training, and autonomy they need to make it happen.

If you let bureaucracy or micromanagement hinder them, it can keep the problem from being solved. If they don’t have the resources or training they need, they are more likely to fail.

Serve your team and help them succeed.

17. Monitor progress

After making decisions, planning, and taking action, monitor your progress.

How effective is your plan? Is it working? What else might you need to do?

By monitoring and being flexible, you can adjust as you go to ensure you are heading in the right direction. If you don’t monitor, you may not know it’s not working till it’s too late.

What you shouldn’t do as a leader during a difficult situations

Ignore it

Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away; it usually just makes it worse.

Hide it

Hiding it doesn’t fix it, doesn’t protect you, and keeps the problem from getting solved. People also lose trust in you when you hide problems, and it could even cost you your job.

Try to gloss it over

Don’t try to pretend it’s no big deal. If the baby is ugly, say the baby is ugly. Be honest and open about it, and it will not only help the situation better, but it looks better on you when you take ownership and own it.


Blaming makes you look weak and doesn’t solve the problem. Take ownership and focus on solving the problem.


Panicking leads to bad decisions and can spread. It’s hard to think, see the big picture and effectively take action when you are panicked.

Don’t do it.

Make hasty decisions

You often need to make quick decisions, but making a decision without making sure you have the information you need can hurt you more than it helps.

Wait too long to decide

On the flip side, if you try to wait till you have all the information or you fear making the wrong decision and delay deciding, you also can be hurting yourself.

Not deciding is a decision and can be worse than making the “wrong” choice.

Isolate yourself

When you isolate yourself, it hurts your team and can raise fear and distrust.

Final Thoughts on How To Handle Difficult Situations As A Leader

As a leader, you will face difficult and challenging situations. What matters is how you handle them.

I hope this list of tips helps you do it well.

Now to you: What would you do differently? Are there any steps that we miss? Share your thoughts and let us know in the comments below.

If you find this article helpful, we would be honored if you share it with your friends. You can find more leadership articles and a lot of other related resources here.


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