Leading in Crisis: A Test of Great Leaders

Although crisis is thought to be unpredictable and inevitable, great leaders can get themselves and their organizations prepared to manage emerging crisis.  The crisis lifecycle model is a useful tool for crisis management.  This model adopts 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.

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).

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.


Aamodt, M. G. (2010). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach (6th ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Haslam, S. A, Reicher, S. D., & Platow, M. J. (2010). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence, and power. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Lussier, R. N. & Achua, C. F. (2010). Leadership: Theory, application, and skill development (4th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Mangi, R., Ghumro, I., & Abidi, A. (2011). A View on leadership skills and qualities with reference to crisis, change and employee relationship. Interdisciplinary Journal Of Contemporary Research In Business, 3(7), 398-408.

Muffet-Willett, S. L., & Kruse, S. D. (2009). Crisis leadership: Past research and future directions. Journal Of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning, 3(3), 248-258.

Prewitt, J. E., Weil, R., & McClure, A. Q. (2011). Crisis leadership: An organizational opportunity. Australian Journal of Business & Management Research, 1(6), 60-74.

Van Wart, M., & Kapucu, N. (2011). Crisis management competencies. Public Management Review, 13(4), 489-511. doi:10.1080/14719037.2010.525034

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