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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Feb 7, 2020


How effective are you in a crisis? This week we outline the four core skills of leading in a crisis to build the resilience of our people and our organisations.



Hello and welcome to episode 65 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore the four key skills of leading in a crisis. 

As we read the news it seems like there is a new crisis every week - fires, floods, earthquakes, financial mismanagement, international tensions. We are often quick to judge leaders solely on what we see them doing publicly. We are very quick to categorise those attempting to lead during a crisis as either a hero or a villain. They either demonstrated and instilled confidence in those they lead, or potentially made the crisis even worse through a lack of leadership 

A crisis by its nature is something you don’t see coming until you’re in the middle of it. The intensity and challenge are often underestimated at the onset of a crisis. Once the crisis is over it’s often easy to look back and spot missed opportunities at the point when the crisis wasn’t a crisis. 

Crisis leadership is obvious on a national stage, particularly when politicians are involved. We can all recall stories of leaders who stepped up during a national crisis. Equally, we remember those who were holidaying, dining, playing golf or getting their hair done while a crisis began to play out. What do we expect from our leaders? Do we want them on the front line fighting the fires, rescuing people, saving the environment from disaster? It’s a natural instinct that when people suffer, we look for leaders to hold responsible. Whose fault was this disaster? Who rose to the challenge?

By definition, a crisis is unpredictable, its scale broad, the speed fast, and the threat great. What does this mean for me as a leader? We all have crises that we face. Maybe it’s just once a year, or perhaps it’s only a few times in our career. But these situations make and break leaders. More importantly, they make and break the lives of those we lead and our organisations.

It could be a series of redundancies and restructures following an economic downturn, or hacking of an IT system, or the impact of a natural disaster or accident. There will be a point when you recognise that this situation isn’t business as usual, but rather a crisis that needs to be managed carefully and at speed. Back in the days of paper and pencil psychometric tests, the instructions we would read to candidates included advice to work “quickly and accurately”. The same competing principles apply in a crisis.

But what is a crisis for one person may not be a crisis for another. Take paramedics for example. They spend most of their day in situations where people are in crisis. But it’s not a crisis for the paramedic. You don’t see paramedics running around screaming and panicking. Instead, you will see them walk towards the people in crisis, bringing with them a calm efficiency that instills confidence in others. Paramedics are able to lead others through crisis situations through their extensive training and experience. What might be a crisis for me is entirely expected and routine for the paramedic. Just like paramedics, we can train and prepare ourselves for crises. 

Research into crisis management suggests there are four core skills that effective leaders demonstrate - identifying, acting, communicating and reviewing. As we work through each of the four skills I want you to think about your own crisis leadership. Think about a challenging situation when you were the leader and consider how you demonstrated each of these four skills. 

  1. Skill one - Identifying. Effective leaders identify a crisis early. While others might be continuing as if its business-as-usual, the effective leader recognises that there is a crisis to be managed. They help people to build a shared understanding of the nature of the crisis, including the likely scope and impacts. Organisations can help prepare for a crisis by building their capacity to monitor for opportunities and threats. You then need experienced people and the ability for them to be heard as the crisis emerges.

  2. Skill two - Acting. The effective leader in a crisis quickly establishes a framework for making critical decisions. They need to set things up so they can make strategic decisions while not getting caught up in operational issues. A truly effective leader in a crisis doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. Instead, they are clear about the kinds of decisions they need to make, and what needs to be passed down to others. The effective leader quickly connects with others in the organisation, and potentially across organisations. They monitor cooperation between these various groups and get involved only where this cooperation breaks down. They quickly isolate the issue from the rest of the organisation’s operations - a process called decoupling. This means only the relevant parts of the organisation focus on the crisis, while the remainder can continue operations as normally as possible.

  3. Skill three - Communicating. A key role of a leader during a crisis is meaning making - providing people with a way of making sense of what is happening. Researchers describe this as creating “authentic hope and confidence”. It’s not false optimism - it helps people to interpret the crisis, and provides confidence about how the leader intends to lead through it. The effective leader recognises that communication in a crisis is different in terms of pace and context. People need to understand the crisis, the likely consequences, what’s being done, and what, if anything, they need to do.

  4. Skill four - Reviewing. Once the crisis is over, a leader needs to explain what was done leading up to and during the crisis. This includes what went well and what didn’t work. Often times leaders, particularly political leaders, are keen to avoid the “what went wrong” discussion. Rather than apportioning blame, it’s more about preparing the organisation and its people for any future crisis. Every crisis is unique, so leaders need to be comfortable trying new things out and learning on the run. Afterwards it’s important to be able to reflect and learn from the experience and lessons. The effective leader uses a review to enhance resilience in themselves, their people, and the organisation.

A crisis is anything but business as usual. But each of us can develop the four core skills of identifying, acting, communicating and reviewing. This helps build strength, agility and resilience in our organisations.

If you want to dive into this topic further, I highly recommend the reference I’ve provided in the show notes. It picks apart leadership in times of crisis from a public administration perspective.

Thanks for listening to the podcast. It would be great if you could take the time to rate or write a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this, and also recommend it to a friend or work colleague. The podcast is continuing to grow and I always make time to read every review. See you next week.



Boin A, Kuipers S, Overdijk W (2013) Leadership in Times of Crisis: A Framework for Assessment. International Review of Public Administration.