Crisis leadership skills are critical to navigating the many emerging challenges organizations face in the 21st century.

The essential elements of crisis leadership

Stacy Richards | December 7, 2022 | Blog | 9 minute read

Leadership teams have been impacted by numerous social, economic, and public health crises since the start of the 21st century. The combination of these events has served to fundamentally alter the way leadership teams run their organizations and engage with employees.

As the long-tail effects of these crises continue to impact 21st-century leadership approaches, senior leaders will have to cultivate a broad set of skills and competencies to make them best equipped to drive the long-term success of their organizations.

Crises that have impacted leadership in the 21st century

The 21st century has already witnessed several crises that have tested the limits and resolve of leadership teams across the country. Among those that have most defined and shaped 21st-century leadership includes:

September 11th terrorist attacks

The sudden death of more than 3,000 Americans in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania shocked the country, and it caused widespread, nationwide grief. In fact, 71% of people reported feeling depressed in the days after 9/11, while almost half said they found it difficult to concentrate, according to contemporary research from Pew.

Employees were understandably struggling and many of them were actively readjusting their priorities. Organizational leadership teams were challenged to show compassion and empathy during those difficult times and demonstrate to employees they had their safety and well-being close to heart.

2008 financial recession

The financial crisis of the late 2000s was a trying time economically for many people, and as businesses shut down and homes were foreclosed on, financial hardship became the norm. Research from Pew found that there were losses of an average of $5,800 in income per U.S. household during the worst of the recession.

Many senior leaders were forced to tighten their budgets and reduce costs, leaving them to make difficult decisions regarding both staff and business operations. Beyond those decisions, it was important to exude a sense of confidence and stability to ensure the rest of their organizations remained engaged and felt secure.

COVID-19 pandemic

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown and safety measures drastically transformed workplaces and employee expectations. The rapid transition to remote work models created challenges for leaders regarding engagement and technology adoption, as well as other issues related to managing a distributed workforce.

Moreover, leaders had to demonstrate unprecedented flexibility and adaptability as they tried to accommodate the increasingly fused personal and professional lives of their employees and colleagues.

George Floyd murder and protests

The shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man living in Minneapolis, at the hands of police officers led to a nationwide reckoning with race relations. For leadership teams, that meant taking a full, honest look at their own workplaces and assessing whether their organizational cultures were welcoming and inclusive of individuals from nonwhite backgrounds.

Crisis leaders were challenged not only to put new policies and processes in place that encouraged diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), but also to address how their own unconscious biases impacted their relationships with colleagues and direct reports. According to research from PwC, three-quarters of organizations now consider diversity a value or priority.

Leading through a crisis: Preparation, management, and recovery

While there is no single best approach to overcoming a crisis, the following tips can help leaders prepare for, manage, and ultimately recover from a crisis.

1. Preparing for a crisis before it happens

The most important step organizations can take to prepare for a crisis is to devise detailed and appropriate plans that list all of the steps the organization — and every key stakeholder — must take when it enters crisis mode.

These plans should account for all of the most likely scenarios depending on the size of the business and the industry (e.g., smaller organizations might be more susceptible to economic downturns while larger ones are more likely to be the subject of a ransomware attack).

Importantly, these plans should identify specific roles and responsibilities, and individuals should understand what their tasks are in the event of a crisis. All individuals should be apprised of any changes to these plans to avoid confusion and overlapping responsibilities if plans are actualized.

One of the salient lessons leaders learned from the COVID-19 pandemic was that a crisis cannot always be predicted, and sometimes leaders will have to think on their feet when the worst happens. In the meantime, it's important for the leadership team to take the appropriate team development steps to build a sense of cohesion and trust among team members. This makes it easier for leaders and their teams to act fast and adapt when a crisis unfolds.

2. Managing crises

Leaders need to understand what is likely to happen once a crisis hits. Employees are going to be scared and confused, and that will cause a significant degree of speculation, exaggeration, and catastrophizing. Rumors easily spread in this environment, and that can cause fear and confusion, making it even more difficult for leaders to manage and contain the crisis.

Moreover, as we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees will have access to huge amounts of the latest news about the crisis, some of which might provide conflicting or plainly untrue information pertaining to the crisis. This only serves to further exacerbate leadership challenges.

One of the most effective steps leaders can take is to communicate to the wider organization early and often, to mitigate the concerns of their employees. Here are some of the steps leaders can take to help them communicate effectively during a crisis:

  • Understand how you will be conveying important messages to your teams. Will mid-level managers receive a playbook beforehand, or will they receive cascading messages from senior leadership?
    • Be as honest as possible by conveying exactly the information you know about the crisis, and importantly, the gaps in your understanding. This will build transparency that will help to generate trust between team members and leadership.
      • Demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence through all of your communications. The commercial interest of the organization and its employees are undoubtedly among your top responsibilities as a leader, but crises can be a profoundly personal experience for employees. They will want to know that you care about their wellbeing on a personal level.
        • Make sure to review and reinforce all communication that you send out. Don't assume that because you have already covered one item in one communication the message has been adequately shared. During a crisis, it can be easy for details to become muddled, buried, or simply forgotten.
          • Don't be afraid to suspend standard protocol and communicate key information to an absent leader's team if they are out of the office. Protocol is important, but during a crisis, bureaucracy can unnecessarily bog down movement on critical issues.

3. Recovering from a crisis: Getting everyone back on track

The end of a crisis doesn't automatically mean crisis management protocols should cease. Employees need to be gradually transitioned from crisis to normalcy to re-establish a sense of stability and bring closure to the situation.

Leaders should take the time to assess the lessons learned during the crisis. This process should include an open dialogue with other leaders and employees to properly respect and appraise each individual's experience. As part of this step, team members should be encouraged to share uplifting stories about resilience and perseverance, and these should be celebrated as major team accomplishments.

Finally, leaders have to restore a sense of normalcy to the business. Emergency measures that were put in place to safeguard against the effects of the crisis should be phased out, and employees should be informed that this is taking place to reinforce the transition.

Essential leadership qualities to display during a crisis

There are numerous qualities and characteristics leaders must display to successfully lead their organizations through a crisis situation. The most important include:

1. Be transparent

Although leaders need to appear confident and collected during a crisis, it's also important they are not displaying inauthentic emotions. Transparency is critical in a crisis because it makes employees feel properly informed about the progress of the situation, which can help them complete crucial personal and professional decisions when needed.

Being transparent also means showing vulnerability; leaders can build deeper connections with team members by sharing their feelings of fear, surprise, alarm, and stress, reinforcing the notion that it's normal and natural to feel those emotions in a crisis.

2. Be proactive

The changing nature of a crisis situation often means leaders will be learning new information on the fly, forcing them to react in real time without proper research or deliberation. While it can be difficult to prevent these instances from taking place entirely, the most effective leaders try to get in front of the crisis as much as possible by proactively gathering all currently available and up-to-date information.

Being proactive can prepare leaders for all the twists and turns that a crisis can take, and it may also give them some degree of breathing room to deliberate with other stakeholders before making a key decision.

3. Maintain a visible presence

Employees are likely to feel scared and powerless in the face of forces they cannot change or control. This was especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which layoffs, lockdowns, closures, and, of course, disease outbreaks were common yet highly unpredictable. It's important for leaders to maintain a visible, consistent presence in front of all their employees, demonstrating that management is working on their behalf and that they don't need to feel alone in the midst of so much uncertainty.

4. Maintain a sense of calm

Effective leaders know how to remain calm, cool, and collected throughout a crisis. They should act as a source of stability within the organization, never responding to new developments emotionally or overreacting to new information. A sense of calm can then cascade down to the rest of the organization and make team members feel confident that leadership is in reasonable control of responses to events.

It's also important, however, not to convey a false sense of optimism about the situation. Leaders should still give their employees an honest assessment of the situation so they are properly apprised of the progress of the crisis and its realistic implications.

5. Remain confident

Confidence is often a mindset — if you tell yourself you can successfully lead your team or organization through a crisis, you have a much better chance of actually doing so. Even when the going gets tough, trust that you have the skill set, resilience, and capacity to make the right decision when needed, as well as the agility to pivot if you take a misstep or learn new information.

If you appear confident to the rest of your organization, you will help exude a sense of trust in your leadership, helping to maintain order and giving you the support you need to act.

Enhancing your leadership crisis skills — The Bailey Group's approach

At The Bailey Group, we have an intuitive understanding of the challenges leaders face in today's perplexing and constantly changing business environment. Our coaching engagements are informed by both the psychological and business sides of leadership, giving coaches access to the broadest range of leadership expertise.

During a crisis, team members look to their leaders for guidance and inspiration, and leaders that are unable to demonstrate an ability to manage their own emotions will find it more difficult to lead others through a crisis.

When working with clients to practice crisis leadership competencies, we help them develop this capacity to manage themselves, including their emotional response to a crisis as well as their interactions with others. It's critical that leaders know exactly how they will react in a crisis to best understand what specific responses they will have to bring under control.

In addition to managing oneself, some of the crisis leadership skills we help leaders develop include:

  • Demonstrating empathy.
  • Active listening.
  • Showing respect.
  • Communicating effectively.

Check out our blog for more leadership insights. If you're interested in learning how you can unlock your leadership team's potential, reach out to our team to start a conversation.