Successful Crisis Leadership: Meeting the Challenge

By Timothy J. Myers

We live in a world of crisis.

Every day the headlines are riddled with one high profile case after another.

Today’s global marketplace has created an interconnected web of influence, where a crisis taking place in a geographically remote area can quickly have effects that are felt around the planet.

The pace of communication advances and reach of the media have created an environment where crises that were once simply a localized event can almost instantaneously reach national and international notoriety.

In this environment it is more important than ever to study crisis management and leadership.

A crisis, as defined by Barbara Gainey, has the capability to “disrupt the entire organization,” “negatively affect the organization’s publics, products and services,” “jeopardize the organization’s reputation, future profitability, and survival,” “dramatically redefine an organization,” “violate the organization’s vision”, and “inflict long-term damage.”[1]

Pretty heady stuff.

Highlighting this definition brings into stark terms the very nature of the crises that we will be examining.  These are events that put the very survival of the organization at risk.  All too often organizations operate in a full time crisis mode, where every little challenge is viewed and dealt with as if it is a crisis of epic proportions.

Mislabeling every day challenges as a crisis can make an organization complacent or even worse, blind to the early indications of an impending crisis.

Turning a blind eye to the early warning signs can put the organization at risk, making it incapable of dealing with an actual crisis that is well on its way toward spinning out of control when finally identified.

Real crisis, if improperly managed, can put the survival of the organization in jeopardy, resulting in the loss of jobs, services, or in some cases loss of life.

Leadership is vital to a company’s success in times of crisis.

As Normal R. Augustine, the onetime president of Lockheed Martin, and Undersecretary of the Army explains, while the impact of a leader on day to day operations is negligible, “the one aspect of business in which a chief executive’s influence is measurable, is crisis management.”[2]

Muffet-Willett and Kruse make a similar claim, “In times of crisis, leadership becomes an integral cog of a successful organizational crisis outcome.  Strong effective leadership is imperative to organizational survival.”[3]  It seems it is difficult to overemphasize the role of a leader in crisis.

One of the greatest challenges for a leader in a crisis situation is the very unique nature of decision making during these events. 

Where leadership in a normal situation usually involves routine decisions made in an environment where the consequences and ramifications of actions are well understood, crisis situations characteristically involve complex decisions made with limited information, but wide ranging implications, under the pressures of increased scrutiny.[4]

The magnitude of stress created in a crisis environment impacts all levels of an organization, thus making every decision more difficult, and overwhelming the unprepared, a combination which could ultimately make the situation worse.

To illustrate this point, every year the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM) analyzes the major crises which took place in the preceding year.  In their 2009 report, the ICM found that a majority of the crises were “management related” meaning that an organization was responsible for its own crisis because of poor leadership or an incorrect reaction.

Essentially bad leadership took a routine issue, mismanaged the response and created a crisis where none should have existed.[5]

In a crisis, leadership is responsible to minimize the damage, start the recovery, and implement future safeguards.

This no doubt conjures visions of great crisis leadership, heroically rising to the challenge, with perfectly honed leadership tools like command, open-mindedness, flexibility, decisiveness, empathy and communication.

But how can we ensure that as a leader we are able to exhibit these characteristics?

While it may sound un-inspirational and less heroic than simply stepping up to the challenge when it arises, true crisis leadership relies on making a resilient team that is capable of responding to a crisis at all levels.

A team taking action, empowered to make decisions and communicating effectively, creates an environment which allows a leader to focus on the most important decisions and frees them to concentrate on strategic communications and external cooperation.

This is the key to crisis leadership.

A leader must build a team that is ready for the unidentified challenges that lie ahead.

With a stalwart focus on making their organization resilient in the face of crisis, a leader can not only hope to survive, but excel during this trying time.


The most effective way to succeed in a crisis is to be prepared for one.

Success in any endeavor, especially those times where the stakes are high and the pressure is on, relies on the flawless execution basic functions, which in turn takes planning and practice.

Leadership during and immediately following the crisis are extremely important, but the success of any leader is only possible if there is significant planning and preparation for the event.

Preparation is vital to a leader’s ability to successfully guide an organization through a crisis.  The complex environment surrounding a crisis make it almost unfathomable to think that a leader could effectively navigate a corporation without a high level of preparation.  Most corporate leaders recognize this fact, yet many of them have not sufficiently prepared for crisis, primarily because organizations are overwhelming biased toward addressing current operations.

Planning is therefore relegated to the perpetually unsavory position of being the issue to address tomorrow. This is where a leader’s focus on prioritizing crisis planning is so important.  Leaders must put priority in preparation or else no one in the organization will.

As Robin Kielkowski argues “making what seems like a remote possibility real and worthy of attention takes leadership and persistence in pushing through the daily grind.”[6]

Only when a leader shows that they are interested in the planning and training necessary for successful crisis response, will it hope to gain any traction. 

This fact of life is primarily because preparation is tough to organize, and typically mundane work.  It can easily be put off until tomorrow because most of us are eternal optimists believing there is no way that a crisis will happen tonight.

Overconfidence is a common issue.

In a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs, 80 percent identified that a crisis was inevitable in business, yet only 50 percent said they had a plan.[7]  Despite this disconnect, a staggering 97 percent were confident that they “would respond well if a crisis occurred.”[8]

The idea that a leader can single handedly and successfully guide their organization through a crisis with no planning is certainly optimistic if not delusional.  Supporting this argument, Augustine points out that in his experience as a CEO “we must make plans for dealing with crises.”[9]

Still another barrier to crisis planning is the notion that it is impossible to create a valid crisis response plan due to our inability to properly anticipate what a crisis might entail.[10]

But as Stern points out in his article, planning can and should allow for flexibility in real-time.

This minimizes the importance of perfect planning factors.

Additionally, the process of planning can often reap collateral benefits including “familiarity with organizational contexts, capabilities, social networks” and “psychological preparedness” that are “far more valuable than the plans themselves.”[11]

Even if planning only organizes or provides one set of viable solutions to a multi-faceted problem, it can still help relieve some of the issues that arise in a crisis.

Simply knowing the first response to a crisis can help break the paralyzing inertia that is an almost inevitable human response.

This first step allows the organization to start moving to react, instead of looking around for someone to take charge.

Empower Leaders

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast of the United States.  The ineffective response of a number of federal agencies including FEMA will forever be remembered.

The extent of the damage, and destruction of communications and transportation infrastructure slowed the response and likely cost lives.  Despite these challenges the Coast Guard was able to respond effectively, saving 1,200 lives before the federal first responders were even on scene.[12]

Why was the Coast Guard able to react in an environment where other federal organizations failed?

In the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, and related Fukushima power plant radiation accident, Lawson, a chain of Japanese convenience stores in the affected area, resumed 80 percent of its business in four short days, providing vital supplies to a Japanese population which had just experienced the catastrophic loss of 20,000 of its people.[13]

What corporate feature allowed Lawson to rise from the ashes of this local catastrophe?

Both of these organizations were able to achieve success where others failed because of decentralized management structures, allowing decisions to happen at all levels.

This model works precisely because when uncertainty is high, as in a crisis situation, having empowered decision makers close to the source allows for a rapid and appropriate response.

Hayashi and Soo use the Lawson example to demonstrate that “organizations fare better in a sustained crisis if they have a distributed leadership, and dispersed workforce, less interdependency among parts of the organization, cross-trained generalist rather than specialists, and if they are guided by simple yet flexible rules.”[14]

Brumfield makes a similar connection, concluding that the successful Coast Guard response was due primarily to the fact that each district command and control center was “empowered to act autonomously” to appropriately respond to whatever situation they faced during their disaster response.[15]

In countless examples, empowered employees making good decisions is the key to timely and effective crisis response.

But choosing to adopt this business model is not as easy as simply drafting an instruction which delineates decisional authority to lower levels.  A leader must foster an environment using transformational and adaptive leadership principles in order to build a team capable of properly responding when the time comes.

One of the best ways to have these types of employees in a time of crisis is to practice transformational leadership during normal operations as well.  Fully engaged employees will be better adept at stepping into a given situation because they already own the company’s principles and the long term mission of the organization.

This extra context and ownership is vital to ensure that decisions made at a lower level are consistent with organizational strategic objectives.

Crises create an environment that is wholly different than standard operations, so it is not enough to simply rely on empowered employees who are trained in the day to day to successfully respond in an emergency.

Employees must be fully integrated into crisis planning and provided extensive hands on training if a company wants a truly resilient workforce.

To illustrate how this type of crisis preparation should take place, we will examine how a military pilot trains.  I have had the distinct honor of both participating as a junior officer and training, as a more senior officer, for the eventuality of crisis in combat as an F/A-18 strike-fighter pilot.

You will see many of the same challenges faced in any crisis, like uncertainty, decisions with limited information, time sensitive response and communications are all evident in combat, but applicable to any crisis.

We will start with the end state goal of any resilient organization, and that is to create a good decision maker who knows how their actions impact the greater mission.

One who also understands the bounds and limits within which they must work, and the difference between decisions they should make and ones that need to be made at a higher level of authority.

For example a military pilot, often times a very junior officer, must be able to enter a dynamic situation, where it is impossible to predict all of the variables or provide a set of answers ahead of time.

The pilot must collect all of the information, working through the time constraints on the ground, their limited fuel or ordinance, ignore distractors and detractors, keeping their minds open to new information, and ultimately make a decision that is consistent with the commander’s intent, the rules of engagement, and the ultimate strategic mission.

Because of the unpredictability of combat operations, every pilot must be equipped to make a decision on their own, and empowered to do so because they have been a part of the process from the very start.

This lofty goal is achievable only because a leader has ensured that the military pilot has been fully involved at all levels of crisis preparation.

The first level is the planning phase.  In the planning phase of a military operation, just as in any business it is important to identify all of the factors that could affect the plan.

Being able to think of what could create issues, identifying their consequences and weighing their costs is the most important part of avoiding a crisis all together.[16]

The leader is extremely important to this phase because they will have a different view which encompasses all of the organizational priorities and can also help identify what is most critical.

Often leadership looks to keep this planning phase at a very high level to protect themselves, but only by incorporating all of the members of the team in this process can you hope to provide the context that is vital to crisis management.

After a solid plan is developed, the military pilot then takes part in extensive training.  In this phase, the leader has an opportunity to work them through scenarios, in a classroom setting, to make sure that everyone is on the same page with regards to the leader’s intent and organizational priorities.

It is impossible to create a scenario or identify every situation that one might face, but by reinforcing the thought processes in each scenario, methodically addressing every major consideration, it is possible to get everyone on the same page.

Once the classroom training is complete, a military pilot then takes to the sky to practice their crisis leadership in a simulated scenario.  This level of training is important for two reasons.

First, it allows the junior leader to apply their knowledge to an unforeseen scenario which could closely resemble the actual crisis.  Familiarity with the crisis environment is vital to success in an actual crisis.

Every organization needs to make sure that they practice, as realistically as possible, for a situation.  Close simulation can also identify issues with the plan that were not readily apparent in the classroom.

The second benefit of real hands on training is that a leader again has an opportunity after the exercise to shape their junior leaders.  This final check makes sure that everyone is clear on the ultimate goals of the organization.

While it may be simple to dismiss this level of preparation as something that can only be applied in the military where there is already a significant emphasis on training, Eric Stern in his article “Preparing: The Sixth Task of Crisis Leadership” advocates for a similar system for every organization.  He argues, “Leaders must be (and try to ensure that their team members, key subordinates, and key partners are) educated, trained, and exercised in preparation for crisis management.”[17]

Advocating for the importance of training he further argues, “Individual and collective crisis management skills are best acquired and honed through hands-on practice.”[18]

These measures may seem extreme, but remember that a real crisis holds the very survival of the organization in the balance.  With those types of stakes at risk, it is difficult to justify not prioritizing crisis readiness.

With a nearly unanimous majority of CEOs confident that they will be able successfully to lead their organization through a crisis, there is clearly no lack of heroic vision in the highest levels of a company.

There is little doubt that many of them dream of the day that they can triumphantly make the critical decisions, navigate the turbulent waters, and emerge victorious from a crisis situation.

While supremely confident in their abilities, it is striking that only half of the leaders felt that planning and preparation were a priority.  This clearly underestimates the importance of their team to success.

The key to crisis effectiveness is in building a resilient organization, capable of making decisions at every level.

Leadership must prioritize planning, provide advance guidance through participation and focus on training.  Only then can they be reliably assured that their organization will prove successful when the time comes.

Tim Myers graduated from the United States Naval Academy and holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University.  He has served in four operational Strike Fighter Squadrons, including in Command of Strike Fighter Squadron ONE NINE FIVE, forward deployed in Japan.  His shore assignments include service as the Military Aide to President, as well as two assignments to the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), where he is currently the Commanding Officer.

[1] Barbara S. Gainey, “Crisis Leadership for the New Reality Ahead.” Journal of Executive Education 9.1 (2010), 35.

[2] Norman R. Augustine, “Managing the Crisis You Tried to Prevent,” Harvard Business Review 73.6 (1995), 158.

[3] Stacy L. Muffett-Willet and Sharon D. Kruse, “Crisis Leadership: Past research and future directions,” Journal of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning 3.3 (2009), 254-255.

[4] Ibid, 255.  This article contains a useful graphic that helps to depict the differences in decision making and escalation between normal and crisis situations.

[5] Ken Brumfield, “Succeeding in Crisis Leadership,” Financial Executive (2012), 45.

[6] Robin Kielkowski, “Leadership During Crisis,” Journal of Leadership Studies 7:3 (2013), 62.

[7] Augustine, 151.

[8] Augustine, 151.

[9] Ibid, 151.

[10] Eric Stern, “Preparing: The Sixth Task of Crisis Leadership,” Journal of Leadership Studies 7.3 (2013), 52.

[11] Ibid, 53.

[12] Brumfield, 46.

[13] Chiemi Hayashi and Amey Soo, “Adaptive Leadership in Times of Crisis,” PRISM Security Studies Journal 4.1 (2012), 80-81.

[14] Ibid, 81.

[15] Brumfield, 46.

[16] Augustine, 149.

[17] Stern, 53.

[18] Stern, 53.

Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to COVID-19, and we thought it would be refreshing to highlight the nature of crisis leadership without descending into the world of post or perhaps never-ending pandemic projections.

Frankly, what is worse than living through a pandemic?

Being inundated with prophets of the future with access to social media.

Also, see the following:

When a Black Swan Comes

Shaping a Way Ahead in European Crisis Management: Leveraging the COVID-19 Crisis

Post-COVID-19: Re-sets in the Way Ahead