Introduction to Leading in Crisis

“Crises, replete with both complexity and change, require executives to both lead and manage effectively.  Addressing the urgent needs of the present is the work of management. You need to make immediate choices and allocate resources. The pace is fast, and actions are decisive.

Leading, by contrast, involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome over this arc of time. Your focus needs to be on what is likely to come next and readying to meet it. That means seeing beyond the immediate to anticipate the next three, four, or five obstacles.

…Crises are most often over-managed and under-led. The best leaders navigate rough waters deftly, saving lives, energizing organizations, and inspiring communities. However, many leaders fall into one or more leadership traps.”  (Source: “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review)

While there are no apparent formally agreed upon models for leading in crisis, there are several models and frameworks that are helpful within this context.

  • Survive/Thrive (Kotter): Kotter describes the contrast between leading from survival using a threat seeking radar rooted in fear as opposed to leading from a paradigm of “thrive” using an opportunity seeking radar rooted in optimism.
  • Leading and Managing (Kotter): Kotter highlights the differences between the core functions and processes of leadership and management.
    • Having a Growth Mindset: Leaders with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of changing themselves through their efforts and that their personal attributes such as their intellect, personality, character and capabilities are not fixed and carved in stone. Carol Dweck: Mindset for Success
    • Collaboration: The ability to mobilize resources, harmonize functions, and create an openness that encourages working together in joint tasks to ensure achieving an articulated vision, all while adapting to an environment changing rapidly with the impact of the crisis. (adapted from Interorganizational Collaboration in Crisis Response Management: Exploring The Conditions For Improving Collaborative Behaviour Across Organizational Borders. Lund University. 2015.)
    • Ability to activate and sustain a “thrive” perspective:  Those who activate their threat seeking radar are motivated by fear and act to survive. They experience the associated effects that fear produces on their neurochemistry and the possible consequences such as poorer decision-making and performance, while those who activate their opportunity seeking radar evoke more positive emotions and body chemistry that can contribute to better resilience in a crisis that helps them thrive in difficult conditions..
  • Don’t get seduced by managing: great leaders in crisis take the long view as opposed to managing the present. They must anticipate what is coming in the future and help their organizations prepare well.

“Are you Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” HBR, March 24, 2020

  • Remember the People: unite people in their efforts and goals as valued members of a cohesive team starting with a common, clearly articulated mission that infuses the work with purpose. Take care of your people and their families first and the business issues will follow.
  • Leadership Styles: Reflect on your leadership style preferences and which style(s) are most effective in crisis situations. The 6 leadership styles defined by Daniel Goleman include: Commanding (do what I tell you), Visionary (come with me), Affiliative (people come first), Democratic (what do you think?), Pacesetting (do as I do now), and Coaching (try this).

Daniel Goleman 6 Leadership Styles (2002)

The following skills are referenced in these articles:

“Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” HBR, March 25, 2020


  • Reduce the volume of threats by separating the perceived threats from the real ones. In times of crisis there may be very real threats as well as perceived threats that may not be real – most of these are related to questions around what actions leaders will take in response to the emerging reality. Will there be layoffs or reduced hours? Will I be forced to physically report to work? What about sick pay? Leaders can help address these by, for example, clarifying current or expanding sick leave practices to eliminate that worry. By reducing the volume of threats, leaders can help prevent the Survive Channel from overheating.
  • Recognize that ambiguity is one of the greatest sources of anxiety and reduce ambiguity where possible. Leaders can reduce uncertainty by, for example, clarifying what changes are in scope, what process will be used to make decisions, what expectations will be revised, etc. Even where answers are unknown, simply recognizing them as unknowns can reduce the level of anxiety tremendously.
  • Inspire confidence through seeking input and demonstrating calm decision making. While in general delegating authority is a good practice, in times of crisis there is a desire for more command and control leadership. However, it is important not to over-centralize your response. A rapidly changing environment also means that the C-Suite executives will not, by themselves,  have all the information to make good decisions. By opening channels for two-way communication, leaders can ensure they are getting real-time information from as many people as possible and are providing clear direction based on this information.
  • Executive decision-making
  • Include long term thinking.
      • Take a multi-stakeholder view.
      • Maintain a bias towards centralized action, especially with respect to communication.
      • Remember that partial answers are better than no answers.
  • Experiment with new ways of working. Without a deliberate effort, new ways of working will revert back to the old once the crisis is averted, but with a focus on understanding why and how these new behaviors and actions are happening, leaders can positively influence the culture after the crisis abates.
  • Take the opportunity to reprioritize, focus and act on important, but not urgent business. In a crisis, normal short-term pressures may be disrupted allowing space for refocusing of some energy and resources on important initiatives could be one way to not only deploy underutilized resources, but also set up the business for success in the future.


  • Leadership & Management Assessment: Self-assessment tool based on John Kotter’s work on the distinct functions of leadership and management will help you identify your strengths and areas for further development in these core leadership and management domains.
  • Leadership Styles Crisis Scenarios: Think about when and how you would use specific leadership styles, what the benefits would be, and what might be problematic about not using the style or using it incorrectly.
  • 6 Leadership Principles to Guide you During Crisis
  • Communicating in a Crisis – Don’t Shut Down Communication
  • How to Keep Calm in a Crisis- Staying in Control When Times Get Tough
  • Planning for a Crisis – Your Response to the Unexpected
  • Mindset for Success (Carol Dweck abstract)
  • Kotter Survive and Thrive in Crisis
  • Leading in Crisis – Traps to Avoid
  • Leading People Through Disasters: Expert Interview
  • Name of example: Description of the example with link to page that illustrates the example. The example page will include links to relevant resources –


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