- Crisis management is about preparation. Crisis leadership is about adaptability.
- Leader sensemaking, decision-making, and communication are critical for effective crisis leadership.
- Leaders should be vigilant and ready to act in a crisis. Crises are also learning opportunities.
The global Covid-19 pandemic, and the successes and failures in dealing with it, brought the issue of crisis leadership to the forefront. Leading under normal circumstances is tough enough, but leading in a crisis is particularly challenging. What are the keys to success in crisis leadership?
In a recent article, Toby Newstead and I (2023) reviewed the literature on crisis management/leadership and extracted five key processes that provide a sort of roadmap for leading during a crisis. The sudden, ambiguous, and complex nature of crises means that the leadership tactics that work in non-crisis situations may not carry over to crisis situations.
Crisis Management vs. Crisis Leadership
Crisis management is all about preparing for the inevitable — and predictable — crisis scenarios. This is why we have fire, flood, and earthquake preparedness and practice “drills.” More recently, think about the active shooter drills that are common in schools. The key here is planning and preparation, along with running simulations. However, not all crises are predictable, so how does one lead in an unforeseen crisis? Crisis leadership is fundamentally different.
Five Keys to Crisis Leadership
- Sensemaking. Crises are novel situations. A leader needs to quickly figure out what is going on, what it all means, and understand what is needed. Old ways of thinking or acting may or may not be relevant. Sensemaking is also creating shared meaning and understanding to move the collective to action.
- Decision-making. In a crisis, decisions must be made quickly and decisively. This requires relying on trusted sources to contribute information and diverse perspectives. In the end, the leader must make informed decisions based on the best possible information.
- Communication. A crisis calls for collective action, so a leader needs to communicate clearly, frequently, and appropriately (e.g., controlling strong negative emotions). Stakeholders need to be fully informed, and the leader can serve as a “hub” for facilitating the flow of communication among various parties.
- Coordinating teamwork. Crises require collective action, so Leaders need to monitor and empower others, call on others’ expertise when needed, and encourage constructive conflict to solve problems.
- Facilitating learning. Throughout, but especially after a crisis, a leader needs to identify weaknesses/vulnerabilities, as well as strengths, to help in crisis recovery and to learn lessons to deal with future crises.
Leaders should be vigilant and attuned to the early signs of an approaching crisis and be prepared to act quickly. Preparation — crisis management — is important for foreseeable crises, but a leader cannot prepare for every scenario. Crisis leadership calls on the best aspects of exemplary leadership, which includes establishing strong relationships with team members, clear and effective communication, deliberate delegation, and quick decision making.