Leading through a crisis – tip #2 do not stick your head in the sand

head in the sand leading a teamNicki Rowland discusses why leaders often go into hiding during a crisis.

Hiding is not the answer

In tip #1, I said: ‘A part of the reason that we would rather “save ourselves” is that the reality of what we are facing can be totally overwhelming and makes us feel helpless. When we do not have all the answers for our team and patients, we can also feel like diving below deck and battening down the hatches. Hiding away is not the answer.’

Actually, staying visible as a leader is. That is natural and straightforward, right? Well, in my experience of working with leaders in dental practices, the opposite can be very true. So, if sustaining visibility is a challenge to you, you are not on your own.

In one of the most memorable consultancy situations I have found myself in, the practice principal more or less hid. As the impact of the COVID-19 crisis hit dental practices on their return to work in June 2020, he ‘stuck his head in the sand’, retreated into his surgery and closed the door. He no longer joined his team for lunch in the staff room or met with the practice manager. 

His team held him to account for everything that went wrong and he ended up with a resentful and cynical team. His reputation as a leader was in tatters in a very short period of time and team members left the practice in droves. To be fair, there are few practice principals who adopt the hypothetical behaviour of an ostrich but many do not spend enough time communicating with their people and maintaining a visible presence within the business.

The ostrich effect

The age old idiom of burying one’s head in the sand goes back to Roman times to epitomise someone who was ignoring or denying the existence of a problem. The hope was that the problem would go away by simply ignoring it. This is a myth.

Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand in the presence of danger. However, they do lie down in the sand which camouflages them. From a distance it may appear that their head is underground.

So, let’s debunk this falsehood. In fact, ostriches have many natural defences that means that they have very little reason to hide at all. Not only is the ostrich streamlined for speed and the fastest creature on two legs but its powerful kick when threatened by a predator can be fatal.

Even big cats need to be wary of attacking an ostrich. They are very territorial and protective of their chicks and have no qualms about attacking lions, leopards or hyenas.

There are five main reasons that I believe as leaders we should lift our heads off the sand, look up and defend our teams and businesses:

We are responsible

The people we lead see us as responsible for ensuring that everything goes right in the workplace. Equally, they will hold us to account if things go wrong. Decision making is part of the balancing act and the defining art of leadership.

However, working collaboratively with your people by brain-storming ideas and thrashing out a plan together means that accountability sits with everyone if things do not go to plan.

Ostriches roam the savannahs in groups of 50 or more. When in danger, they flock together and move as a synchronised corps. They know there is strength in numbers. Equally, we need to see the value in pulling together, empowering our people and working as a tight knit unit to ward off any threat to our business during this COVID-19 crisis.

We are the information source

The best leaders are first-rate communicators regardless of whether they are talking about business, politics, sports or the military. Their values are clear and solid, and what they say promotes their values and purpose. Likewise, we need to be the source of transparent, direct and honest information.

Do not let social media, internet or the grapevine become the source of information instead. In a crisis, it can be our human default to put up our defences, put our heads down and stop communicating for fear of drawing attention to ourselves and being shot down in flames.

Be like a male ostrich. They are fearless. They are very vocal and use whistling, hooting, booming and shrilling to direct and lead the flock in times of crisis. You would anticipate that more noise may attract and provoke predators and heighten the danger levels. In fact, the increased volume can ward off other animals and has the added value of directing the other birds to a place of safety.

We are the listener

If you stay incarcerated in your office or surgery, you will not know what is happening ‘on the ground’. One of the most respected practice principals I know has a great reputation for staying connected with his team. As one of his dental nurses said to me: ‘He is always visible and ready to listen to any of us – whether it is about work or a personal issue. He truly cares and looks after us all.’ By listening, he knows that he can influence thinking, offer perspective and steer his team away from hazardous situations.

Much like the male ostrich, he is the main carer in the flock. The chicks learn to follow the male, huddling around his feet as they try to keep up with the formidable strides of the group. The male ostrich shows it’s young how to feed and shields them from the elements using his wings to protect them from the scorching sun.

We are the outlet for people’s emotions

A crisis drives strong emotions, predominantly anger and frustration. People need to off load these emotions and they are usually directed at their nearest and dearest or you as a leader. This can be painful and is the toughest test as a leader. This is one of the primary reasons that drives leaders to hide away in the first place. We are only human after all. We need to be strong, we need to be resilient and we need to find courage.

Dealing with a barrage of aggravation is no mean feat particularly if we are feeling discouraged and thwarted ourselves. Don’t give up! You maybe be exhausted by the continuous battle of getting your team on side or dealing with a resistant team member. You may be tired of introducing new policies and procedures in line with COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures. Training your team to implement them. Nevertheless, the battle is worth it.

Remember what the American politician, Rahm Emanuel, said. ‘Never let a crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.’ It is all about ‘kicking ass’, just as an ostrich uses its powerful legs to square up against a threat. It is all character building stuff!

We are the yardstick

As leaders, our behaviours, values and actions will be observed by our teams. We are setting the standard of conduct and performance in our businesses. If our standards or attitude slip, then our people will think that it is acceptable to let theirs slide too.

Whether it is to the detriment of our practices or not, our people will follow our lead. Steve Jobs says: ‘Be a yardstick of quality. Some people are not used to an environment where excellence is expected.’

So, ask yourself what kind of yardstick you are. Make your expectations of quality clear. Live those expectations and become a yardstick worth being measured against. Build a visible presence whereby your people look to you for direction just as the flock look to the male ostrich to direct them.


There you have it. No matter what the temptation is to hide during this crisis, stand firm. Your people need you. Imagine what would happen if the male ostrich disappeared. Chaos would ensue. Your team would feel abandoned and that certainly does not demonstrate good leadership.

In my next article, I talk about the ‘Meerkat Effect’ and explore how some leaders can become hypervigilant in the face of a crisis. 

Read Nicki’s first tip here: Finding your anchor

In the meantime, if you need any help, advice or consultancy, email [email protected] or [email protected].

This article first appeared in Private Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here. 

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