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Strategic Crisis Leadership: Being an effective leader in the midst of chaos?

Jun 24, 2013

Bruce T. Blythe, CEO, Crisis Management International, Inc.
What would you do in the following situation?

You learn that one of your facilities has been emitting low-level toxic substances for an undetermined amount of time. It is the company’s fault due to a prior decision to delay replacement of a faulty system in one of your facilities. But, it is quickly remedied. Possibly, employees, visitors and others have all been exposed to a small degree. Most likely, the exposure was minimal with no harm.

Unfortunately, a similar situation occurred at the same facility last year. You reported it to the authorities and the media, in learning about it, exaggerated the story, blaming the company for putting people at risk.

If knowledge of the present toxic emission were unveiled publicly it would likely cause serious reputational and legal damage to your organization, now that it has happened again.  But it would be worse if discovered later that you tried to cover it up.  Possibly, your position within the company is on the line, as well. Only you and a couple of trusted subordinates know about the emission now. Do you proactively go public and risk the feared personal, reputational and legal damage or try to resolve the situation quietly with (hopefully) no public harm done?


Each crisis situation requires a “defining decision.” Initial information is at least partially wrong. Rumors may be rampant. Action must be taken without time for sufficient consideration. The consequences are high. People are watching your every move. The velocity of information coming in is staggering. The stress is numbing.

Now, make those decisions that may have life and death implications. Act in a manner that will be scrutinised later. Take that risk that may define your career as an excellent leader when the organization needed it most . . . or an inept manager with poor judgment under pressure.

Crisis Leadership

Crisis leaders can be found throughout the ranks of any organisation.  Certainly, the Board, CEO and top management are tasked with leading at high levels.  But, anyone with leadership responsibilities within their silos of responsibility can, and should, be a crisis leader when your number is chosen to be on center stage of a crisis.  Let’s take a look at what we know from experience differentiates an excellent crisis leader from a more tactical responder.

There are significant differences between Tactical Crisis Management and Strategic Crisis Leadership.  An effective crisis leader must consider and respond to both the tactical and strategic issues that emerge during a crisis.  The list below gives some of the high level differences:

Tactical Responder  vs Crisis Leader
Reacts  vs Anticipates what is ahead
Short-term focus  vs Long-term, consequence-related focus
Process oriented  vs Directed by guiding principles
Narrow focus  vs Wide focus
Implements tactical tasks  vs Utilizes judgment

Strategic Crisis Leadership involves high-leverage skills that are vital to corporate recovery in the midst of a crisis of any sort. Crisis leadership skills are needed that define the crisis beyond the obvious, forecast the intended and unintended consequences of decisions, anticipate the effects of the crisis on impacted stakeholders, assess the impact of the crisis on core assets, and follow the values and guiding principles of the organisation . . . and your own ethical standards that may be tested to the limit.

Crisis leadership is more about who you are than what you know.  At the risk of being redundant, I’m going to say that one more time to assure clarity. “Crisis leadership is more about who you are than what you know.”  No learned crisis leadership skill will overcome a lack of character, ethics, integrity or unlawful behavior. An effective crisis leader must act deliberately, quickly, and effectively with honesty, high moral values and ethically.

Unfortunately, as human beings, we are only partially aware (or completely unaware) of our character flaws, incompetencies, and knowledge gaps that may emerge when in full stress, high-consequence situations.

So, how can crisis leaders help to fill in the gaps for their “unaware” character flaws, incompetencies and knowledge gaps that often emerge when the “heat is on them?”

In order to help assure their leaders will act with good character in a caring manner when crises hit, crisis prepared organisations develop overarching response guidelines for their crisis managers to follow.  You may not always make the right decisions in an unexpected, highly-visible crisis situation that involves unknown and incorrect information, fast velocity, and high-consequence.  But, by following time tested guiding principles, your decisions can stay within the “guardrails” and keep you and your organisation out of the ditch. I provide you with five guiding principles for managing crises:
Crisis Leadership Guiding Principles

1. Well-being of people first, with caring and compassion
2. Assume appropriate responsibility
3. Address needs of all stakeholders in a timely manner
4. All decisions and actions based on honesty, legal and ethical guidelines
5. Available, visible and open communication with all impacted parties
Your organisation may want to add to this list, however in any case, guiding principles for crisis response that are established prior to your next critical incident can be a roadmap throughout the organisation for strategic crisis decision-making.

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