Qualities of a Good Crisis Leader

Crisis–A Leadership Opportunity

Crisis team leaders should possess and demonstrate qualities that support the overall success of the organizational (team) mission.

Of the dozen or so key qualities that permeate the readings, I consider these the most critical:

  • Caring
  • Communication
  • Decisive
  • Integrity
  • Presence
  • Trust

I’ve always been a big believer of integrity and its critical role in our life. When a leader faces a crisis, that is not the time to begin building relationships or skills and certainly not when integrity is born. Rather, good leaders build trust with their internal and external stakeholders as part of the fabric of who they are as people. In many cases, this integrity (reputation for doing what people expect based on declared actions) grows well before a person is even recognized as a leader. [1]

In addition to integrity, another quality I think important is caring: the ability to think with both heart and mind as demonstrated by Mayor Giuliani in the immediate aftermath of the tragic 9-11 attacks. [2] An analogy I often use in teaching people to teach others (a.k.a. train-the-trainer), is that students “…don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care”. [3] A good example of the quality of caring is Aaron Feuerstein in the immediate aftermath of the Malden Mills fire. Mr. Feuerstein bolstered the workers of the small town by promising continue benefits and pay for 90 days after the fire. Eventually, the mills were rebuilt and the company continued to be successful with a loyal following of appreciative workers. [4]

Crisis leaders can gain the trust of both internal and external stakeholders by behaving in a way that demonstrates they are trustworthy.  Since information is power, some leaders are reluctant to give power away. However, in the case of Denny’s racial discrimination lawsuit, the leaders shared lots of information early and throughout the crisis. The leaders demonstrated transparency which probably engendered the trust that helped the company move through and beyond the crisis. They rectified the problems, provided training, and set core value standards for the future. [5]

Communication is a broad skill. When I consider communication as a crisis leadership skill, it makes the critical quality list. The crisis leader needs to “…clearly communicate a vision, allay internal fears and reassure outside participants and onlookers” [6]. In my experience with work or family crisis, I found there to be a reluctance of myself and others to face the issues directly and keep people informed. It may be human nature to avoid the pain of the event. However, I also found that over communicating actual works better in nearly all situations. For example, during layoffs, our human resources leaders provided management with a set of talking points (for customization later) to be used during each phase of the crisis. The more we met with people and shared updated information, the better. Of course, there is no perfect approach to this anguishing time in a company. Leaders must be prepared to modify and adapt the messaging in an honest and accurate manner to suit each individual situation.

Being present, on the scene, in the midst of the issue are all phrases that describe the attribute of showing empathy. People respond well to leaders who participate directly with those experiencing difficulty. The challenge for the leader of any organization or team is not too emotionally caught up in the event, but to be present and better understand what is really going on. [7]

Finally, decisiveness is a key quality of crisis leaders. [8] I have known of some leaders who were great during routine business, but who fell apart or could not make a clear decision during a crisis. I don’t see this as a flaw, but simply that not every person can do both, lead during normal business operations and also lead during a crisis.


[1] Schoenberg,  Allan L., and Flynn, Terence, “What it Means to Lead During a Crisis: An Exploratory Examination of Crisis Leadership-Chapter Proposal“, , PRL 725, Public Relations Management,  Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Independent Study Degree Program in Communications Management. Spring 2004, 13-15

[2] Braden, ARNG, Col. Victor; Cooper II, USN, Capt. Justin; Klingele, USA, Col. Michael; Powell, USAF, Lt Col John P.; Robbins, USAF, Lt Col. Michael G., “Crisis–A Leadership Opportunity“, Harvard University John F Kennedy School of Government, 2005. 7, 37, 65

[3] Westering, Frosty. There are dozens of common references to this saying, with many modified versions to fit an audience. The earliest reference I found was attributed to basketball coach Frosty Westering, however I am unsure of the actual origin.

[4] Braden, Ibid. 20-22

[5] James, Erika Hayes, Wooten, Lynn Perry, “Leadership In Turbulent Times: Competencies for Thriving Amidst Crisis“, Working Paper Series 04-04, Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia

[6] Schoenberg, Ibid. 11-12

[7] Braden, Ibid. 51-52

[8] Ibid. 1, 25, 58

Changing Organizational Culture

When changing an organization’s culture, we will encounter resistance. Resistance comes in many forms, but particularly from an individual’s or group’s fear of:

  • new things or unexpected outcomes
  • questioning whether they have the skills to continue to perform
  • rank and privilege changes
  • how they will be compensated and long-term financial impacts
  • how they or their organization will be thought of (brand, image)
  • losing the close-knit, comfortable group with whom they are used to being everyday
  • and many more

To manage resistance a leader can:

  • Being prepared and anticipate these concerns
  • Create a vision of how the new environment will look
  • Understand cultural norms, general attitudes and trends that describe the current state\
  • Perform a gap analysis that helps identify areas to focus attention [1]

An organization’s culture can be described by what the people of that organization think, feel, and do based on their attitudes and core beliefs.  Sometimes those beliefs are formed or modified by observing the actions of their leaders and the accepted norms of others – usually ‘others’ that are successful.  Over time, groups of people adopt  a way of ‘being’ within an organization. That way of being becomes comfortable and change is often met with resistance. [2]

Changing a culture is an enormous undertaking and one not to be taken lightly. The effort, energy, dedication, tenacity, time and cost necessary to overcome resistance to change has probably stymied many a CEO. Leaders are seen as the “…lynchpin of cultural change” [3] and critical to building good companies into great companies. [4] These leaders will sometimes face unexpected consequences as they begin to integrate a cultural shift. [1]

Resistance to change must overcome traditions, norms , and cultural biases. As an example, I’ve recently observed resistance in the fire service which has a reputation of being filled with heroes who prevent and fight fires and save lives. The firefighters are known to be a very close-knit circle of comrades who trust each other with their lives.  As I worked on a national benchmark study of fire service best practices concerns and resistance emerged.  Many of these concerns can be directly related to the introduction of suggestions which challenged the norm. When that set of norms is nearly 500 hundred years old the resistance can be quite strong. [5]


[1] Nelson, Lynnda, “Organizational Resilience and Culture“, ICOR, Seminar Three Week Three Lecture, Norwich University 2009

[2] National Defense University., 200X, “Strategic Leadership and Decision Making, Chapter 16: ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE“. Source accessed 3-20-10: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/strat-ldr-dm/pt4ch16.html

[3] McGrath, Debbie, “Leveraging the Leadership Team” an interview with Jim Clemmer, Thoughts from the Top-A Collection of Interviews With Business Gurus, Ontario: HR.com, 2004. 157-163, Print

[4] Collins, Jim. “Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Print

[5] Legeros, 2006. “Firefighting History Timeline“, Firehouse.com. Source accessed 3-21-10: http://www.firehouse.com/forums/showthread.php?t=78751

Conversation on Public Sector Resilience

Colleague: “So do you think that the majority of public sector organizations are centralized?

Andy: We can probably agree that the public sector includes all branches and departments of the government at the federal, state, and local levels; higher education and public school systems, and certain civil organizations, publicly supported non-profits, and particularly, all emergency services departments. The very nature of the incident command structure is top-down management.

All of these organizations operate as a centralized structure exhibiting the attributes that Brofman and Beckstrom describe for such organizations. [1]

  • There is one person in charge, for example, the governor, mayor, or city manager, principal, or executive director. Each is organized in such a way that decisions (ultimately) are made from a top-down, chain of command approach and this is by design.
  • There is one location, a headquarters or main branch, or primary gathering area.
  • If the person in charge is unable to perform their job, there is usually (hopefully) a succession plan and another takes their place. However, if most or all of the ‘head’ of state, or person in charge are impacted (for example, in a catastrophic event, i.e. Haiti, Katrina, 9-11), some organizations are not able to recover at all.
  • Roles and responsibilities on an organization chart are clearly defined.
  • If an entire function is eliminated, for example, a public works or energy department, that function no longer is available. Mutual aid and cooperative agreements are typically in place, however, recovery is lengthy.
  • Rigidity, is prevalent in the public sector. Although much of the everyday work may be delegated, I have found the reputation of ‘bureaucracy’ to be well-deserved.
  • Funding is quite focused and budgets are provided strictly by the central authority.
  • All employees or volunteers are known and accountable. There is very little, if any, unknown participants. Contractors, consultants, and vendors must apply through a regimented request for proposal process and are identifiable.
  • The everyday working groups communicate directly, which is one of the only recognizable decentralized attributes.

There are many exceptions, but I view the exceptions as modifications to everyday operating agreements and not fundamental changes in the model.

Colleague: ” Does that mean they are inherently at risk of attack from decentralized organizations?  Are they inherently more vulnerable and less resilient than private sector companies?”

Andy: In general, no, I don’t think public sector organizations are at risk from decentralized models. Although, there are countless examples of non-profits and contractors taking on responsibilities traditionally performed by public sector. However, this is at the direction and with approval of the public sector entity. Short of anarchy, where groups unofficially take over public sector duties, I don’t see the threat.

I think that public sector companies are actually less vulnerable and more inherently resilient than private companies. Private companies can fail easily without anyone or another company bailing them out. (Recent financial bails outs are an exception, not the rule.) Whereas, public sector entities have a number of mutual aid agreements, operating cooperatives, and backup plans for essential services at all levels. Neighboring towns help each other, the state brings in resources, and the federal level (eventually) participates in recovery once a disaster is declared.

Colleague: “But aren’t there some public sector orgs that evidence the five legs?!?  Aren’t there many out there that exist precisely because they share trust and ideology?  That have champions and operate with circles of equals?  Here I’m thinking of, say, food pantries and soup kitchens and churches and on and on…”

Andy: Yes, the examples you offer are good ones that represent some evidence of the five legs. However, they are either independent non-profits (and therefore not officially public sector), or they are authorized branches of a publicly-funded program. In many cases, if there is no approval or support from the ‘head’ (official of a municipal), then funding doesn’t flow and these worthy causes do not exist, again unless they are already independent non-profits.

Colleague: “(And what are the limits here?  How would we rate a fire department?  Is it a spider because there are clear lines of authority?  Or is it a starfish because there are arguably the five legs in place that create a culture of trust and resilience?)”

Andy: That is a good question. I think it’s clear that fire departments are organized as central, top-down structures with all of the associated attributes of a ‘spider’. However, in my experience, there is often a champion of a cause (special program), a catalyst for change (self-appointed non-ranking leader), a circle, a clique, if you will, of like-minded, ‘trust me with your life’ comrades, who form a brother(sister)-hood shared across the globe. Firefighters (and to a minor extent other emergency service teams) have a close-knit feeling of group-think which seems to create value. All that said, I don’t necessarily see how that ensures better resilience of the organization in and of itself. Rather, I return to the concept that without funding, these structures fall apart. There would be those that would emerge after a disaster and catalyze a new beginning, but again, the very nature of fire departments is to protect the collective well-being of the citizens, and that takes a centralized, structured organizational model.

[1] Brafman, Ori, and Beckstrom, Rod A., “The Starfish and the Spider-The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations“, 11th printing, USA, Penguin Books Ltd. 2006, Chapters 1-4

‘Circle’ – Group Share and Develop and Resilience

‘Circles’ are an important part of a decentralized organization.  Circles refer to the concept of groups of people getting together for a common purpose. Brafman and Beckstrom consider circles to be one of the fundamental legs of the structure of a decentralized organization. [1]

In the public sector, I rarely see any evidence of the decentralized model, nor do I think that a decentralized model works well for public sectors organizations. Therefore, I don’t immediately see ‘circles’ as part of these organizations.

On a smaller scale, particularly at a college, for example, I have seen a type of circle form in many areas of the campus structure. Circles are particularly useful with groups of students coming together for common purposes, like a cohort at an university. The cohort begins together by chance signing up for the same first semester. After the start of the program, the cohorts may mingle making use of the wonderful and wide variety of online tools available to students and faculty. The university becomes the catalyst, the director of a program, perhaps the champion (or it could also be a student), and the circles develop without specific central direction. Remember your college cohorts? Ah, but I think we called it by another name.

By being in a cohort we get accepted into a circle fairly quickly similar to the examples offered by Brafman and Beckstrom like the abolitionists with the Quakers in 19th century England. [2]

I did experience circle development virtually at a high tech company where was part of a group (cohort) of directors.  It was operated as a centralized model but with an expectation that decentralized circles would emerge and drive program success worldwide. Also, the company believed in positive, viral influence, sharing ideas, and transparency. Of course, not everyone was on board with that. The open source software was driven by a loosely referred to as ‘gaining eyeballs’. They believed that if they gave away software (loss of profit) to students the world over that when the students arrived in industry they would want to continue using that software. And their companies would buy service agreements (increased residual profits). It was mildly successful.  The decentralized model promotes an open sharing of ideas and at no time is on specific location, person, or group indispensible in terms of continuity. Thus, the product set and the company can live on should a disaster displace a particular set of resources.

In the “Starfish and the Spider”, it’s suggested that one of the main principles of a decentralized model is “as industries become decentralized overall profits decrease”. [3]  It did however, encourage a great sharing and freedom and flexibility from these virtual circles of software engineers globally.


[1] Brafman, Ori, and Beckstrom, Rod A., “The Starfish and the Spider-The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations“, 11th printing, USA, Penguin Books Ltd. 2006, Chapter 4

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid., pg 45

Does Decentralized Help Resilience?

In my experience with the public sector I have found most organizations to be ‘spider’ type arrangements. ‘Spider’ refers to  organizations which are predominantly commanded and controlled in a traditional top-down fashion. There is one person in charge, a CEO, and there is a hierarchical structure. Decisions are usually made from a central point of control. [1] These organizations are centralized.

Brafman and Beckstrom provide a number of real life stories of the success of a decentralized structure including the Apache’s fending off the Spanish to modern day creative internet ideas beating the odds against major corporations like Napster vs the music industry. [2]

The value of decentralizing parts of an organization will vary with the type of organization. I’m not convinced that decentralization is always best. In the example of one of my case study organizations, a hospital, I think a more centralized structure benefits patient outcome on the clinical side. Physicians may gather viewpoints, trusted opinions, and do research to determine a best course of action or additional options to help a patient survive and improve. This activity goes on everyday whether a crisis occurs or not. I cannot imagine a patient treatment being reliant on attributes like there is no one (physician) in charge and that if a unit, say X-ray was dismantled, that the rest of the organization would be able to provide the patients with full service.

If organizational resilience means continuing core objectives through the toughest of events, than I think that hospitals may need to remain more centralized.

I recognized that there are many other types of businesses and organizations which can benefit from more of a decentralized structure. The examples that come to mind are in the electronic world of computers, libraries, higher education, and other social structures. These groups can grow in a viral manner by taking more effective advantage of a larger collective group of intellect and ideas.


[1] Brafman, Ori, and Beckstrom, Rod A., “The Starfish and the Spider-The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations“, 11th printing, USA, Penguin Books Ltd. 2006

[2] Ibid, Chapter 1

Organizational Reslience – Not a New Concept

Organizational resilience is not a new topic. The concept has been around for many years and may date back to 1626 coming “…from the Latin words resiliens and resilire, meaning to rebound”. [1]

What is new is the way it is being applied. [2] Many companies use emergency management, business continuity, and organizational resilience interchangeably. [3]  I think they are each different.

To me, resilience is the ability to endure stress, chaos, and personal impact, continue working and living through the impact, and enduring a life (or work) beyond the impact period. Resilience speaks to a capability to persist. That capability takes planning and practice.

I found a central theme in our first weekly readings that speaks to organizational resilience as  the notion of a ‘new’ ways of looking at reality. There is a strong suggestion from many sources that resilience is improved by with the open sharing and networking of key concepts with a large group of stakeholders. This would especially be true for a company which depends on employees and a supply chain to continue during tough times or a crisis. Here, there is a similarity with business continuity.

I think that business continuity and risk management are ‘cousins’ of organizational resilience. Each is necessary and connected, but left alone each discipline leaves out an important feature and strength of the other.

For example, risk managers look at financial exposure as a result of a crisis and determine ways to avoid that exposure; continuity professionals would understand the natural and man-made vulnerabilities and put plans in place to ensure the business survives through the crisis. Organizational resilience (managers) help build an infrastructure and culture that thinks, prepares, and performs in a flexible way to adapt to the new pressures of a changing environment and society.


[1] Oldfield, Robert. 2008.Organizational Resilience“. QBE Insurance (Australia) Ltd. Source accessed 3-7-10: http://www.continuitycentral.com/feature0618.html

[2] Ceridian, 2006.”Building Organizational Resilience“. Source accessed 3-7-10: https://norwich.angellearning.com/AngelUploads/Content/MSBC_LOR/_assoc/msbc_sem03/msbc_s3_reading_page/msbc_s3_reading_PDF/wk01_Building_Organizational_Resilience_ceridian.pdf

[3] McManus, Sonia, Seville, Erica, Brunsdon , Dave, and Vargo, John. 2007. “Resilience Management-A Framework for Assessing and Improving the Resilience of Organisations“. Resilient Organizations, Source accessed 3-7-10: https://norwich.angellearning.com/AngelUploads/Content/MSBC_LOR/_assoc/msbc_sem03/msbc_s3_reading_page/msbc_s3_reading_PDF/wk01_Resilience_Management_framework_Res_Org.pdf

Adapatation – Key to Resilience

Nelson says that a resilient organization achieves  its core objectives under all conditions. [1] Understanding and anticipating what ‘all’ means can be critical and is probably a daunting task. I propose that we (an organization) cannot anticipate all conditions, stresses, or unforeseen impacts to our business. Therefore, we should prepare in a proactive way to put systems and processes in place that are strong and can withstand a variety of stresses. We must institute an adaptable approach to how we manage and lead our organization.

After reading Oldfield’s discussion on organizational resilience in Continuity Insights, I was struck with his direct approach to the subject of adaptation as a key ingredient. He used a quote from Darwin that we know as “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” [2]

If adaptation is critical to survival, then I think it becomes a key element of a resilient organization. As is the case with other disciplines, sports games, or even relationships, without the strength, fortitude, and capability to adapt to new situations, the game is lost or the relationship fails. If that relationship  is between a company and its customers, a city and its citizens, or an organization and its members, then there is a lot at stake.

There are many other important aspects of resilience in an organization not to be dismissed. Another which stands out for me is the concept of sharing of information across platforms and people – the concept of interoperability. [3] As the world becomes less physically close and more virtually close, there can be more threats and ways of disruption and also more opportunities for success and productivity.

I think our (business, organization, people) ability to share in the planning, share in the crisis, and share in the recovery is a new way of looking at how to be resilient during the next several years.


[1] Nelson, Lynnda ,2010. “Characteristics of a Resilient Organization”, from Norwich MSBC Seminar 3 Lecture.

[2] Oldfield, Robert. 2008.Organizational Resilience“. QBE Insurance (Australia) Ltd. Source accessed 3-7-10: http://www.continuitycentral.com/feature0618.html

[3] Solomon, Richard and Brown, Sheryl, J., 2007. “Creating a Common Communications Culture: Interoperability in Crisis Management“, Virtual Diplomacy Initiative, USIP, United States Institute of Peace.

Self Resiliency

Have you ever left home, travelled a few minutes or a few miles and realized you left your cell phone/pda back on your desk?  What did you do, turn around and get it or continue on your way? If you’re like me, you might have reacted like this:

First – I get a little tinge of anxiety. Oops, oh, uh, OK, I wonder where I left my blackberry;

Second – I wonder if I really need it today, that thought lasts about 3 seconds and then I determine, well, of course I ‘need’ it;

Third – Yes, turn around, regardless of how that impacts my schedule and I go get the phone.

All this, just for a cell phone. What about major disasters, crisis, and emergencies – are we adaptively resilient? (Well, yes, I am trained and experienced in emergencies and wilderness situations, but…, I still returned back for that darn phone!)

We spend a lot of time and energy discussing and planning to build a resilient organization and that is good and necessary. How much time and energy do we spend on our own attitude, that of our team, our employees or our citizens? What about individual resilience?

I’m just wondering how we can expect to come together as a team, an organization, or across nations and build resiliency without also focusing on the individual.

In a very well presented book titled “When Technology Fails – A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency”, Matthew Stein offers the reader tips, tools, and techniques for personal resilience. Much of the substance of the book is founded on well-known principles ,but Stein presents in a way that captures our interest. Initially, Stein focuses on what can happen and why and then moves through dozens of survival, sustainable, and resilient topics. It’s a great read if you wish to be more prepared for the inevitable dynamics of our changing environment.


[1] “Stein, Matthew, 2008. “When Technology Fails – A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency“. Chelsea Green Publishing Vermont

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