3 Keys to Leading When It Matters Most

Jarrod Barnes 


Success, victory, significance, and legacy. All of these are the result of leadership in life’s critical moments. These moments are different for everyone, for some it could be leading their family together through financial instability, for others, it could be leading themselves after a failed relationship. Regardless of the magnitude, critical moments reveal the level of personal leadership in your life. It is not a matter of “if”, but “when” these moments happen.

In order to lead when it matters most, preparation, structured systems, and vulnerability are required.


One of the greatest coaches I had the opportunity to play and work for was coach Greg Schiano. A master of preparation, coach Schiano repeatedly reminded us that “in times of crisis, you will not rise to the occasion, but to the level of your training”. The Harvard Business Review released a recent article echoing this same concept, stating that every leader needs to be prepared for crisis.

In practice, coach Schiano would constantly have defensive players prepare for in-game situations, creating numerous scenarios that the team could potentially face within a game. As a professional, forecasting for potential scenarios within your organization, family, or personal life is critical to leading when it matters most. For example, walking through a step-by-step plan of how you would handle losing your job. By planning for success and failure and creating alternative options provides confidence when these moments arise.

Structured Systems

When operating in critical moments, “awareness of the psychological impact of stress and what it can do to your comprehension and sensitivity may put you in a more advantageous position.” (Makovsky, 2013) Understanding how you may react to bad news, a loss, or mistake it just as important as your plan to respond. Having a tested, structured system in place provides stability and guidance during critical moments.

For example, balancing every negative with three to four positives, focusing on a singular task, and addressing the root of an issue are all simple, yet impactful systems that can provide stability and guidance.

Do you have a system in place to respond in times of adversity or do you react? After giving up a touchdown, missing a deadline at work, or argument at home, refer to these systems in order to respond effectively and efficiently.


Leading when it matters most requires the trust of those involved with you. Dr. Vincent Covello, Director of the Center for Risk Communication, states that “caring is 50% of the basis for determining trust. Caring is judged in the first 30 seconds; once assessed, people are highly resistant to change. 75% of information about trust is communicated nonverbally.”

In the workplace or on a team, one way trust is built is through relational vulnerability. Your ability to empathize with those around you during critical moments will have a direct correlation of how impactful your leadership will be received. In 2012, The University of New South Wales, released a study on how empathy and compassion impact performance in the workplace. It states that “the single greatest influence on profitability and productivity within an organization…is the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognizing their people, welcoming feedback, including criticism, and fostering co-operation among staff.”


 I’ve chosen to live my life by a simple phrase: “when you needed me the most, I gave you my very best”.

Coach Urban Meyer declared this statement to the Ohio State Buckeyes during the 2016 football season. While, at the time, he was talking about football performance, I’ve chosen to implement this in my life as a professional.

Forecasting for potential scenarios, having a structured system to guide your decision-making, and building trust with those closest to you will allow you to lead your team, family, and life when it matters the most.