Leading in Times of Crisis: Follow the 7 Cs

A few weeks ago I reached out to my friend and colleague Dan Roberts to see if he’d share his “7 Cs” of leadership with you. Dan is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates, and well known in the technology world. He is the author of multiple books, including the top-rated “Confessions of a Successful CIO.” More than that, Dan is a great guy – full of positive energy, big ideas, and seasoned insights. I can honestly say, I think I’ve enjoyed every single conversation I’ve ever had with Dan. When you read this blog post, I’m sure you’ll understand why.

Oh, one more thing, Dan totally “gets” what courage is all about! Read on… Bill T.


The past couple of months have been a whirlwind. With so much change and chaos and uncertainty all around us, a lot of us have had our heads down, plowing through, getting the things done that we have to get done. For the IT teams and leaders that I work with, it’s been nothing short of herculean when you consider all the work that’s been accomplished in such a short amount of time — getting their companies set up for remote work, quickly executing on digital transformation plans they’ve had in development, and making sure the pivot is seamless, both at an operational level as well as for their customers.  

While change is often driven by systems and external events, leading change is very much about people.

Those efforts have paid off in a big way. But as we move out of this first phase, there’s a risk of facing a “gold medal moment.” That’s what Olympians often experience after the big, all-consuming goal is behind them. When you muscle through a huge task and get to the other side of it successfully, it’s enormously satisfying, but sometimes it’s also a bit of a letdown. Now what? you wonder.

One thing I’ve discovered over my 30-plus years of working with and studying top leaders is that they share certain qualities that enable them to not just thrive in times of crisis but also stay focused on the future and drive more ongoing value to the business. As a result, they’re shaping the story that comes next rather than getting stuck playing defense over and over again.

I call the traits inherent in top leaders the 7 Cs: Courage, Customer Centricity, Change, Cultivate, Communication, Collaboration, Culture.

Two women at table discussing leadership.

How Great Leaders “Cs” the Day

Here’s a closer look at just a few of these seven leadership essentials. Consider how you might target your own leadership development with the 7 Cs in mind so that you can “Cs” the day with a more strategic eye to the future.


For years, we’ve talked about change being the constant in business, but lately, the pace of change has accelerated dramatically. In other words, if you think things are busy and changing now, just wait. Top IT leaders are acutely aware of this. Not only do they have to embrace change, but they’re also often the ones who have to shepherd change through the entire enterprise. And then turn on a dime and do it again. And do it again. 

While change is often driven by systems and external events, leading change is very much about people. The best leaders understand that successful change hinges on their ability to bring people along and to help those affected by change understand, embrace, and ultimately accept it. In addition to effective tools, processes, and structure, it takes a high level of interpersonal skill to do this well. 


Cultivating is also about people. In a hyper-digitized world, companies are increasingly concerned about whether or not they have the in-house skills and talent to support their critical business transformation efforts. This is why top leaders are relentlessly focused on attracting, growing, engaging, and retaining the best talent. They’re putting the strategies and systems in place to assess where they are today, understand how the industry and job functions are evolving, and identify the gaps so they can make sure their workforce is future-ready.

It’s not accurate to say effective leaders are customer focused; in fact, they’re customer-obsessed.

The best leaders are also continually cultivating their own knowledge and skills, because they know that to stagnate means to fall behind. After all, there’s no textbook for these times. In a world of constant disruption and ongoing uncertainty, a learning mindset is your best asset.

Customer centricity:

It’s not accurate to say effective leaders are customer focused; in fact, they’re customer-obsessed. With precision and intention, they look at the critical Moments of Truth that impact their business partners and clients, and then they use those insights to fuel how they “show up” with others. That’s how they’re consistently able to earn trust and build their credibility. 

Customer-obsessed leaders and their teams aren’t just getting invited to pivotal business meetings — they’re spearheading them, because they’re looking beyond the immediate and helping drive more value to the business. Whether they’re meeting with internal or external customers, this is how they stand apart as Strategic Partners and “Innovative Anticipators.” 

Women in IT working at laptop.


Communication is one of any leader’s most important skills, especially in times of crisis. Great leaders pull together diverse information and then synthesize it to articulate an inspiring vision. Getting the right input, asking the right questions, driving the right conversations, winning trust with engaged stakeholders — all of these rely on communication skills

Particularly now, this isn’t something a team can script out for you. With people working remotely and juggling personal and professional struggles, employees need and increasingly expect authenticity from their leaders. The best of the best are showing their humanity by being transparent, candidly sharing what they can, admitting it when they don’t have all the answers, and communicating in more frequent and personal ways. 

Every leader faces tough situations — that’s what crisis leadership is all about — but as one CIO told me, courage is a choice.


There’s a reason why I kicked off my 7 Cs webinar series with a conversation with my good friend Bill Treasurer, who literally wrote the book on courage. I can’t think of a time when leadership courage was more needed than it is today. Every leader faces tough situations — that’s what crisis leadership is all about — but as one CIO told me, courage is a choice. That means it’s up to us to decide: Will we make the tough call, or not? Will we take the risk, or will we kick the can down the road?

Great leaders know that they have to push themselves outside their comfort zones, because the things that allowed them to be successful yesterday won’t cut it tomorrow. Opportunities will emerge from this crisis, but we have to be willing to take the risks and get a little uncomfortable. As leaders, if we can’t display that kind of courage, we can’t expect anyone else to either. 

MIT’s George Westerman noted that there has never been a better time to be a great CIO, nor a worse time to be an average one. The same is true for any leader today. We can choose to retreat — and, by default, let others fill the void — or we can rise to the occasion and shape our own future. If you’re ready to shift from defense to offense, take a page from these top leaders and start by focusing on the 7 Cs.

Dan Roberts is a 30-year IT veteran who’s considered one of the best-connected thought leaders in the CIO and HCM spaces. The CEO of Ouellette & Associates, Dan is the author of two top-rated books, “Unleashing the Power of IT” and “Confessions of a Successful CIO.” He also writes the “CIO Whisperers” blog on CIO.com and produces IT Pack’s “Alpha Insights with Dan Roberts” series.

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