ITL #369 Crisis leadership: what top leaders must do to guide their organizations

1 month ago


The CEO's role in a crisis is to provide leadership across six key tasks. Public relations counselors must educate and support executives about this role. By Joseph A. Brennan.

A mishandled crisis poses grave risks to any organization. Consequences include a damaged brand, a weakened stock price, loss of confidence among investors, customers and employees, and the removal of the chief executive officer and other senior leaders. 

Yet despite decades of research and experience, widely-available training programs and standardized methods such as the National Incident Management System, organizations routinely bungle their handling of critical incidents. Why? What’s causing otherwise skillful leaders to struggle so much with the demands of leading during a crisis?

The answer is that for too long, organizations have focused on developing crisis management capacities rather than equipping their top leaders to master crisis leadership. 

Crisis management is vitally important, of course. Responding quickly, taking action to save lives and protect property, working to contain the threat, and establishing a flow of accurate and timely public information in a critical incident are essential. Yet while necessary, these operational responses are not sufficient to position an organization to survive a crisis. They must be complemented by normative leadership from the organization’s chief executive and senior leaders.

During a critical incident, victims, employees, neighbors and regulators expect top leaders to create meaning from the chaotic and contradictory information swirling about. Leaders must provide a framework to understand what’s happening and why, express the values that will guide decisions about response and recovery, signal when it is time to move out of crisis mode, hold responsible parties accountable, and assure that appropriate steps are taken to prevent a similar incident from occurring again.

If these tasks, which must be initiated and guided from the very top, aren't done well, publics will judge the organization harshly. And if they are done well, the organization stands a chance of emerging from the crisis with a stronger reputation than it had beforehand.

High-stakes leadership

This kind of normative, high-stakes leadership is distinct from the operational practices taught in the vast majority of crisis management training programs, which typically focus on equipping first responders, emergency managers and public information officers with tactical skills. Too often, chief executives defer to these experts and fail to carry out their unique role in critical incidents.

The CEO's role in crisis comprises six key tasks, according to a growing body of academic research based on hundreds of actual crises faced by companies, non-profit organizations and governments across the globe. The six tasks are:

  • Sense-making
  • Decision-making
  • Meaning-making
  • Terminating
  • Learning
  • Preparing

Sense-making means quickly forming a picture of what is happening and what needs to be done, as well as an understanding of what’s at stake and how various publics will view the situation. This task is difficult because crises by nature are fast-moving and complex, information is inadequate, and signals are contradictory. Leaders should ask questions like, “what do we know for certain right now?”, “how much time do we have,” and “what values are at risk?”.

Decision-making must happen at a pace much faster than many executives are comfortable with. Most crises unfold as a series of “what do we do now” problems driven by the flow of events. Top leaders must develop the capacity to make decisions in high-risk situations marked by uncertainty, values conflicts and intense time pressures. Public relations counselors can support executives by concisely summarizing options and the potential risks and benefits of each, and reminding decision makers of the expectations of, and impact on, all key publics. Typically the public relations counselor is the only advisor who will insist on examining the ramifications from a multi-stakeholder perspective.

Meaning-making is perhaps the most important crisis task for top leaders. Some operational decisions can and should be delegated to those managing the situation – especially in the very early stages of a critical incident, where dithering could cost lives. But leaders should not delegate the work of meaning-making. Research shows that people in crisis have difficulty processing information. Leaders must help them to understand what has happened, what's being done about it and the values that are guiding those actions. By their words and deeds, leaders can convey images of competence, control, stability, sincerity, decisiveness and vision – or their opposites. Public relations counselors should pay close attention to supporting their leaders in this vitally important task.

Terminating refers to the delicate task of guiding the transition from crisis mode back to normality. It has two components: ending and accounting. Counselors can help leaders identify the right moment to initiate the termination phase. Ending too soon may endanger people who are still in harm’s way or create a backlash from those who are still emotionally invested in the crisis or otherwise unready to move forward. Top leaders also have to manage accountability processes, which often includes submitting to the scrutiny of outside entities, such as regulators or elected officials. Stakeholders expect people to be held accountable for their role in causing or contributing to the crisis, as well as for how the response was managed. Chief executives who appear to shirk or resist this duty risk losing their jobs.

Learning requires the leader to assure that the organization keeps accurate and thorough records about the crisis, and that it analyzes and evaluates key processes, tactics, techniques and procedures after the critical incident with an eye to identifying ways to improve future performance and capabilities. Moreover, the CEO must assure that the lessons learned are actually implemented, and that the organization engages in the key work of preparing for the next time it faces a crisis.

Public relations counselors must expand their skills and move beyond the role of “public information officer” as specified in most crisis training programs. By understanding the role of the top leader during a crisis, and supporting him or her in carrying out its six key tasks, counselors can reduce risk for their clients and employers and provide a highly valuable service that attorneys, management consultants and operational managers are not equipped to perform.


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The Author

Dr. Joseph A. Brennan

Dr. Joseph A. Brennan provides leadership that helps colleges and universities survive and thrive during changing and challenging times.

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