Leading during Crisis: Building the Airplane While Flying It

Kurt R. Podeszwa
January 2021
Illustration of an airplane

January 1, 2020, I was on a cruise ship in the Gulf, toasting to what I believed would be an amazing year ahead. But this past year was not what I was expecting it to look like. For the first time in over 25 years, I did not run an in-person summer camp. Closing camp was obviously not among my goals for the year; nor was figuring out how to offer the kind of virtual experience our campers needed. Now that we have campers back, we are figuring out screening, personal protective equipment (PPE), when to wear masks, and how to be social at a physical distance. Indeed, 2020 was not the year any of us were expecting it to be. And now, a year later, we all have our stories; we all have experienced disappointments and successes. As leaders, we have moved through this crisis by making decisions, reviewing our decisions, and then making new decisions. 

Early on in this crisis I heard someone say that this all felt like we were building an airplane while we were flying it. That phrase has stuck with me, as has my gratitude that we already had our Crisis Response Plan in place. That helped us build the plane faster. Even though our plans may not have been specific to the current crisis, we did have a plan, as well as a team eager to implement that plan.

As leaders, we move between leadership and management on a regular basis. And we understand that all leaders manage but that not all managers are leaders. This becomes even more apparent during a crisis when we must lead as we manage in an uncommon landscape and things can move very fast. We must continue to think about our leadership as we manage the crisis. In short, leaders are not forged in crisis; rather, crisis reveals leadership.

So, what are the components of great leadership during crisis? Effective leaders:

  • Take action
  • Adapt
  • Communicate effectively
  • Focus on the positive
  • Practice self-care
  • Analyze and adjust

Leaders Act

During a crisis, leaders need to be decisive and act. This past spring, information changed by the hour, causing some people to want to postpone making decisions until they had all the facts. But now, months later, we still don’t have all the answers — so if we had waited to act, we would have waited too long. Leaders need to identify our priorities, make decisions, and forgive mistakes. Missteps will happen, but failing to act is far worse.

To act, we must start with finding credible information. Social media has its uses, but it is not the place to get accurate updates. During crisis, even people with the best intentions will too often share information that has not been vetted and may be incomplete or incorrect. The best place to look is to state and local health services, local government, emergency services, and industry-serving organizations such as the American Camp Association.

Leaders Adapt

In addition to acting, leaders must adapt. While leaders are gaining information, they must also  look at how to adjust their programs and services to fit the current circumstances. To adapt, we must be grounded in our mission, understand our resources, and let go of our preconceived notions. What we have done in the past may not work. How we have previously approached problems may not help us with these challenges. Leaders recognize this and then gather their teams together to brainstorm ideas. 

We saw examples of camps adapting in 2020. While some camps started virtual activities, others shifted to incorporate COVID-19 protocols into in-person camp programs. As leaders we understand that other individuals and organizations may make different decisions than we do — and that is OK. Each organization will seek to make the decisions that best fit its needs and its mission.

Leaders Communicate Effectively

Communication is always key, but in crisis situations it is even more important. Large organizations need to make sure the lines of communication are clear and effective to and from the “front line.”

To communicate well, we need to understand who we are communicating with and what their concerns are. We must not gloss over people’s fears and doubts even if we don’t share them. Fear left to itself will grow. Acknowledge fears and discuss them; don’t just dismiss them.

Make sure your crisis communication response plan includes all your stakeholders: 

  • Board of directors
  • Donors
  • Staff
  • Camper families 
  • The community

Information travels fast. Avoid miscommunication by ensuring all your stakeholders receive important information directly from you. If stakeholders get the information from other sources (the rumor mill, etc.), they may lose confidence in your organization.

Make sure you provide as much information as you can, and repeat and reinforce information on a regular basis. When a crisis continues as the pandemic has, you need to make sure you continue to communicate with your stakeholders regularly. Here are some key components of effective crisis communication:

  • Be honest and transparent.
  • Explain the effect of what is happening to your organization.
  • Explain what your organization is doing.
  • Explain how you will continue to communicate.

Leaders Focus on the Positive

Though we may need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, we must also move past them and think of the positive. 

  • What will your organization learn from this? 
  • How can this be an opportunity? 
  • How will your campers’ experience be better in the future? 

Focusing on the positive is important for our self-care and to reassure others of the light at the end of the tunnel. That said, as leaders we need to temper boundless optimism. I learned a phrase last summer that I love: “bounded optimism.” As an optimist who always sees the positive, I think and talk positively. But it is also important to realize that my optimism is not boundless. I do not believe that the summer of 2021 will go back to how things used to be and COVID-19 will just be gone. That is boundless optimism. I do, however, believe that the summer of 2021 is going to be great, and our campers are going to have an amazing experience.

Leaders Practice Self-Care

I am not a mental health professional, but when it comes to self-care, I am reminded of the safety briefing on an airplane. If the oxygen masks come down, put yours on first and then help your children and others who require assistance. It goes against the grain, but I understand that I cannot help others if I am not breathing. The same is true during a crisis, especially one that is as drawn out as this pandemic. In 2020 I dealt with the loss of summer, as did many others. In the larger scheme of things, this was a minor loss. I kept telling myself, “I have a job, I have my health, and my family is safe and healthy. Losing the ability to run camp for a summer is a minor loss.” Somewhere in there, however, that minor loss took a major toll on my mental health. Camp is who I am; it is one of the ways I identify myself. I needed to find purpose.

The same holds true for our camp staff. During the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, Ernest Shackleton’s ship became trapped in a pack of ice. He and his crew had to stay put for the brutal Antarctic winter to wait for the ice to melt. Shackleton made sure that his crew maintained their ordinary duties while the ship was stuck, and if they were unable to do their ordinary jobs, he found them work (Lansing, 2015). He understood that without purpose, his team would lose hope. As leaders, we need to do the same thing for our staff. We all need purpose.

In addition, we need to remember to take time for ourselves. Get away, take a walk, see a counselor, go mountain biking, play disc golf (the last two were staples in my COVID-19 summer). Do something that renews your energy, and work on discovering new ways to identify yourself. When you take care of yourself, you will be a better leader.

Leaders Analyze and Adjust

The COVID-19 crisis is not over, but as leaders we need to look back and adjust our plan. Be honest: what did not work well? I spoke about my self-care, but it took a while for me to realize I needed that. That was a midcourse correction. Where do you need to correct? Get with your team and debrief about what has happened thus far. Avoid using statements like, “Given the circumstances, we did the best we could.” That’s a given, but now we are looking critically at the plan, the adjustments, the decisions. What would you do differently if you had the chance? Leaders don’t get defensive; they accept responsibility and make a plan to do better. We are flying the plane that we built, but we can keep improving it while we fly.

In addition, what changes have been made that you want to keep even when things are back to normal? What have been the benefits of this difficulty? An Albert Einstein quote comes to mind: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Don’t miss your opportunity.

Let’s Get Ready

Summer 2021 is just around the corner. It’s going to be a great one, and we owe it to our campers, our staff, and ourselves to be the best leaders we can be. We do that by looking back and assessing our past behaviors, learning from them, and growing. I cannot wait to see everyone at the next in-person ACA conference, but until then, be well, be safe, and remember that to continue to lead effectively, through good times and bad, you must continue to grow as a leader.

Last spring, the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA, with additional support from the Association of Camp Nursing, partnered to provide educational resources to both day and overnight camps, state and local health departments, and parents/guardians and campers. To do so, they engaged consulting firm Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E) to convene an expert panel and create the Field Guide for Camps on Implementation on CDC Guidance. That guide was updated in the fall and outlines current recommendations for implementation of cohort strategies and non-pharmaceutical interventions to limit the introduction of infected individuals and the spread of COVID-19 within camps.


  • Lansing, A. (2015). Endurance: Shackleton’s incredible voyage. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kurt Podeszwa is the camp director for Camp For All in Burton, Texas, giving him the opportunity to work with a variety of special populations, including campers with traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, cancer, kidney disease, autism, cerebral palsy, and more. Kurt is an accomplished presenter and author and the founder of Journey Consulting. He has presented at national and regional conferences as well as for companies and schools on topics ranging from leadership to managing behavior.

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