Leadership Through Crisis

Crises occur in a group or organization in many forms such as natural disasters, fatal accidents, workplace violence, financial turmoil, and so forth. A crisis is “a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly” (Lussier & Achua, 2010, p. 456). An organization’s long-term sustainability and success depend on its effective leadership to managing and overcoming crisis. In order to understand how leaders respond to and deal with crisis in an organization, this article reviews the leadership roles in normal business operations and assesses how the roles change during the time of crisis. Expectations of leadership before and during crisis also are analyzed. A crisis lifecycle model is discussed to examine how leaders prepare for crisis, manage crisis, and take actions for organizational change after crisis.

Leadership Roles and Expectations

Leadership is regarded as a social influence of initiation and guidance for organizational operation and change. Surugiu and Surugiu (2012) stated that leadership is seen as a “social process of exchange in which the leader gives something to those who follow him” (p. 303). This process has three variables: the leader, the followers and the situation. Leaders envision the future of the organization to develop and implement business strategies and set the strategic direction of the organization. The most important responsibilities of the leaders are duties related to the achievement of objectives that interested subordinates, and in the same time, improved the organizations’ development. Thus, an effective leader “correlates subordinate’s objectives to the objectives of the organization” (Surugiu & Surugiu, 2012, p. 305).

Leaders should be good managers. During normal business operations of non-crisis time, leaders perform many daily management tasks. When working on managers’ job duties, leaders are responsible for creating order and stability through activities such as planning and budgeting, organizing and controlling. At the same time, leaders should play the leadership role to motivating and inspiring individuals to energize them to overcome barriers to change, aligning them behind a clear vision, and creating productive change that enables the organization to achieve its ambitions (Passmore, 2010).

In normal, non-crisis operations, leaders are expected to perform their appointed jobs such as directing a group with an assigned task. Subordinates expect their leaders to be able to share the vision, understand the people’s needs, and support workers’ daily job and performance. The upper management would expect leaders in all levels to understand organizational goals, set achievement plans, and delegate responsibility to proper persons ( Mangi, Ghumro, & Abidi, 2011). On the other hand, leaders during crisis face challenges distinctly different from ordinary business operations. Crisis management is a critical leadership function that requires leaders to utilize knowledge and skills different from what required for day-to-day tasks. Because “crisis is not a regular part of most work environments, facing crisis situations requires leaders to be well prepared for the unknown” (Muffet-Willett & Kruse, 2009, p. 248).

Preparing for Crisis Leadership

According to Prewitt, Weil, and McClure (2011), crisis “has its genesis in the values, beliefs, culture, or behavior of an organization which become incongruent with the milieu in which the organization operates” (p.60), therefore a leader may be able to sense the subtle signs of forthcoming crisis and prepare to cope with the emergency brought up by unpredictable incidents. A generic crisis lifecycle model defines the process of crisis in three phases: the preparation phase, the emergency phase, and the adaptive phase. An organization stays in the preparation phase prior to any crisis. During the preparation phase, leaders should be “cognizant of tremors or signals of misplaced values and behaviors” (Prewitt, Weil, & McClure, 2011, p. 62).

Crisis is “a critical time or climate for an organization in which the outcome to a decision has extreme consequences” (Aamodt, 2010, p. 606). As noted in Shin (2011), conflict and crisis challenge leaders to make contingent and transforming reactions in high-risk situations, hence leaders need to prepare themselves for “effective decision-making and problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to engage in ethical decision-making” (p. 172). Leaders should engage in crisis training for prevention and preparation with focus on stress management, conflict resolution, and team building (Gómez-Mejía, Balkin, & Cardy, 2012, p. 273). According to Pynes (2009), crisis prevention and preparation demand leaders’ capability and readiness to deal with new, uncertain, and rapidly changing conditions on the job, thus leaders need to master the adaptive job performance which includes eight dimensions as “(1) handling emergencies or crisis situations, (2) handling work stress, (3) solving problems creatively, (4) dealing with uncertain and unpredictable work situations, (5) learning work tasks, technologies, and procedures, (6) demonstrating interpersonal adaptability, (7) demonstrating cultural adaptability, and (8) demonstrating physically oriented adaptability” (Pynes, 2009, p. 205).

Messick and Kramer (2005) suggest leaders enhance their organizations’ strategic capacity which is “the ability of an organization to fashion a novel solution to an emerging crisis” (p. 6). Leaders should add to strategic capacity to the extent that they enhance the motivation, relevant skills, and the heuristic problem-solving capabilities of their members. When the organizational structure fosters strategic capacity, leaders can prepare the organization for crisis by recognizing, prioritizing, and mobilizing awareness for change. To develop strategic capacity, leaders need to understand and focus on the core objectives of the organization.

Leading in Crisis

The emergency phase of crisis lifecycle begins when the crisis escalates. The transition from the preparation phase to the emergency phase starts when crisis eruption generates institutional awareness of the emergency. During this phase, employees and managers experience unendurable stress, and the survival of the organization is at high risk. The emergence of crisis requires leaders to immediately shift from normal operation to crisis management. As stated in Mangi, Ghumro, and Abidi (2011), the leadership of crisis management is so critical that the “failure can result in serious harm to stakeholders, losses for an organization and its very existence” (p. 403). In order to control the situation, leaders are required to understand, assess and cope with it competently. The most important action during the emergency phase is to “mitigate the threat and reduce disequilibrium to a level where the organization and people within are at a safe level” (Stern as cited in Prewitt, Weil, & McClure, 2011, p. 63).

Muffet-Willett and Kruse (2009) stated that crisis situations are so different from daily business operations that “crisis events can threaten the viability of the organization” (p. 255), hence “the non-routine nature of decision making within crisis events can stress even the most seasoned leader” (p. 255), therefore leaders in crisis “need to be flexible, adaptive and prepared for tough decision-making challenges whatever the cause or situational context” (p. 256). Crisis may force leaders to adapt different leadership styles. According to Aamodt (2010), coercive leadership style, in which the individual leads by controlling reward and punishment, “is the most effective in a climate of crisis” (p. 605). It has been found in research that leaders tend to use more formal and coercive types of power than they do in non-crisis situations. (Aamodt, 2010).

Crisis can change people’s expectations on their leaders. As examined by Haslam, Reicher, and Platow (2010), in times of crisis, people intend to look for leaders of magical power who can solve problems that otherwise seem insoluble. Employees expect that their superior leaders can rescue the organization and guild followers to step out of the darkness. Because crises cause people’s serious concern and panic that can disrupt both organizational operation and personal life, the leadership needs to be both strong and calm, which means that a crisis leader is expected to demonstrate “calmness in the face of adversity no matter how inwardly challenged a leader may feel, while at the same time being able to have the ability to make authoritative decisions stick in stressful and chaotic conditions” (Van Wart & Kapucu, 2011). Because organizations and employees want their leaders to be bold and willing to assume full responsibility during crisis, Van Wart and Kapucu (2011) stated that leaders must “exhibit self-confidence externally and have the resilience to cope with the initial trauma and the exhaustion that normally accompanies protracted events” (p. 506). Furthermore, “leaders cannot be half-hearted and bureaucratic; they must be dynamic in articulating the means by which people and property will be protected to the utmost” (p. 506).

Post-Crisis Leadership

When immediate danger is under control and the organization returns to a sense of stability, the crisis lifecycle enters the adaptive phase thus the organization can determine that a crisis has passed. In this phase, as asserted by Prewitt, Weil, and McClure (2011l), leaders must “take advantage of the fleeting organization mandate to address the underlying cause of the crisis so that the event will not be repeated” (p. 63). The positive side of crisis is that any crisis could create an opportunity for the organization to change and grow, therefore during the adaptive phase leaders can develop new procedures, alter the organizational culture, and help the organization to profit from the crisis. After the crisis is over, the leadership should focus on “a balancing act between maintaining urgency for change while at the same time fostering a sense of safety and security” (Prewitt, Weil, & McClure, 2011, p. 63).

Because of shift of focus from current crisis to future changes, leaders may need to switch leadership style from coercion to transformation. Transformational leaders are most likely to emerge from an organization’s turmoil thus they can “institute turnaround strategies which are often radical transformations that put the organization on a different path for future growth and prosperity” (Lussier & Achua, 2010, p. 433). After crisis, according to Lussier and Achua (2010), by recognizing the need for change as reflected through the crisis, transformational leaders have the opportunity to “formulate and introduce a new vision for the organization that promises a better and brighter future than the present” (p. 433). In order effectively return to non-crisis strategic leadership, leaders need to inspire and motivate followers to raise their self-confidence, optimism, and acceptance of the leadership’s new vision.


Although crisis is thought to be unpredictable and inevitable, experienced leaders can get themselves and their organizations prepared to manage emerging crisis. The crisis lifecycle model for crisis management is a three-phrase approach including preparation phase, emergency phase, and adaptive phase. In the preparation phase leaders should be prepared for effective decision-making and problem-solving skills and enhance their organizations’ strategic capacity. When the emergency phase evolves, leaders must shift focus from daily operation to crisis management and demonstrate strong and calm leadership in making authoritative decisions. Leaders may need to adapt different leadership styles in order to manage people and control the situation during crisis. When the crisis has passed, leaders should take to the opportunity to facilitate organizations’ change and growth. Transformational leadership is effective in the adaptive phase for organizations to formulate new visions and directions.


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