Out of the Wilderness: Leadership During a Disruption or Crisis

January 10, 2019 | By Tom Springer

Whether you lead a long-established company or rapidly rising newcomer, trouble will eventually come your way. It’s just a part of business – and quite frankly, a part of life.

True leadership is the capacity of a person to endure and to stay focused on priorities during times of crisis. Performance under stress can show how quick witted or level-headed a person is, or on the contrary, it can show where his or her weaknesses lie.

I believe one of the smartest things you can do as a leader is to anticipate crises before they happen. Trite but true, you should expect – and plan for — the unexpected and develop a “crisis-ready culture” with division heads who are trained to follow established procedures and to make deliberate, wise decisions. 

Like a good Boy Scout, always be prepared!

The organizational operating models that provide the baseline for a smooth-running enterprise during normal times often evaporate during a crisis, throwing the leadership into a morass of uncertainty and chaos. When visualizing potential crises and developing immediate response plans and procedures, most experts recommend instituting these three pre-emptive steps: 

  • First, designate an insider who will be the point person for managing information. This shouldn’t be the CEO, but someone entrusted to calmly and thoroughly gather, synthesize and report critical information (e.g., the CEO’s chief of staff, a senior communications executive or an assistant general counsel);
  • Second, appoint a rapid response team to support that person; and
  • Third, give that team some scenario training.

This last vital point is all too often overlooked. Experience is the best teacher, and realistic practice sessions from time to time can pay large dividends when a true crisis arrives.

Most companies have operational procedures established for crises; i.e., shut down manufacturing equipment or implement cybersecurity measures, but fewer have processes or policies for internal and external communications. In most crises, long after the issue itself has been resolved, the damage caused by poor communications continues to erode the company’s value and jeopardize its future.

Crisis communications plans must consider every stakeholder – from employees who may react to rumors, to the media who may disseminate false information, to shareholders who may lose confidence in your leadership.  Providing transparency, centralizing the flow of information, and ensuring that messaging is controlled and consistent across all platforms are elements of a good crisis communications plan. 

But there’s more to leadership in crisis than preparation

I believe the hallmark of a great leader in crisis is 360° awareness. Once the s**t hits the fan, you will invariably be confronted with the need to learn about people, problems, details or systems far down the chain, to improvise as needed, to take a long view of the situation, and to remain committed to established values.

It may feel as if chaos has ensued, but it can be managed successfully if its impacts are understood and mediated:

  1. Stress management– everyone will be likely to be working overtime and to feeling that each decision he or she makes is monumental.  Recognize that many will respond better (or worse) than expected under this tension;
  2. Time sensitivity — circumstances can become out of control quickly, leaving little time for standard operating procedures and requiring “all hands” to re-prioritize and act accordingly;
  3. Organizational flexibility — rigid hierarchical structures can be a hindrance in crisis situations when adaptability is essential to cope with immediate needs and changes in duties or the chain of command; and
  4. Media scrutiny — turmoil loves the spotlight and you may not be used to juggling the pressure of the media on top of everything else.

If you haven’t walked the office hallways recently, now’s the time – employee engagement is key!

If you have a rapid response team in place, let them do their jobs. In the meantime, remain visible to your employees. Your presence will send the message that “Everything will be okay,” and “We’ll get through this together.” While some parts of the process will undoubtedly require confidentiality, don’t shut everyone out and hide in your bunker. This will encourage an “every man for himself” mentality that will be poison to the company in both the short and long terms. You’ll need to visibly demonstrate your support for your team and employees in order for them to support you and the company. 

If employees are asked for their feedback and ideas, they will take more ownership of the problem. Additionally, they’ll be more devoted to the cause and more motivated to help. So be collaborative.  

While the following tips may seem obvious, they are the kind of daily “self-talk” reminders that can help you in the heat of the crisis:  

  1. Stay balanced and try not to lose control of your actions, temper, emotions, or awareness;
  2. Focus on the future and to moving forward as a team with a shared vision;
  3. Remember that teamwork makes all the difference, so delegate and enable others to act;
  4. Challenge the process and be open-minded and willing to adapt to changing circumstances; and
  5. Recognize the toll of the added tension and stress on your team’s physical, psychological, and mental condition, so take care of your people.


Strong leadership during a crisis begins with planning long before it is upon you and remaining calm and collaborative throughout.  Adherence to your company’s mission statement and core values will provide the backbone for decision-making and communications.  And maintaining high visibility, transparent communications and 360° awareness of the impact of the crisis on your stakeholders will enable you to successfully lead through it. 

Tom Springer is a founding partner in Springer Lawson & Associates, a consultancy of former C-level executives who help mid-market companies maximize enterprise value in advance of, during, and following major business transactions or disruptions.

Next Up:

Getting Back on Course After a Disruption: Elements of a 360˚ Assessment

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