Crisis Management 101

Jul 17, 2023

Is it just me or does the idea of “crisis” dominate contemporary media? Seemingly every time you turn on the TV, pick up the newspaper, or check your phone updates, you’re greeted by an announcement of the latest harbinger of death or impending collapse of social order. The Financial Crisis. A World Health Crisis. The Border Crisis. Natural Disasters. The Political Crisis … just to name a few. Everywhere you look, one thing seems clear—you’d better start stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, because the end is near!

Maybe that’s true. Maybe things really are that bad. Maybe we are just one good hiccup away from the collapse of civilized society.

Or, perhaps the more likely explanation is that as humans, we’re prone to hyperbole and the 24-hour, instant information age we live in feeds and exacerbates that tendency.

While this latter explanation certainly seems to be at least partly to blame, I think there is also another significant issue driving the media’s attention to crisis, and that is the poor management of crises. There’s no way around it—in recent years, months, and even days, prominent leaders, both in the public and private sectors, have done a lousy job handling crises. It seems that every day, new headlines are created by a leader not handling something well.

My interest, though, is not to rehash mistakes that have already been sufficiently dissected elsewhere, but rather to attempt to use those mistakes as a wake-up call for all leaders. In the same way that a crisis can be a catalyst for change, let’s allow the crisis of poor crisis management to spur us to more carefully consider how we approach significant changes and problems in our lives and organizations.

While you probably won’t be spearheading a global response to a contagious disease anytime soon (or practicing for one like Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation), if you lead any organization for long enough, you will have to navigate some difficult waters:

  • A merger or acquisition that leads to large-scale layoffs
  • A disruptive shift in the marketplace that challenges the heart of “how” you do business
  • Growth that combats your culture
  • An ethical failing of a leader within your organization or another employee disappointment
  • The unexpected death of a senior leader or founder

When those times come, how you as a leader approach the situation may ultimately decide how, and even if, your organization makes it to the other side. With that in mind, here are some critical principles of crisis management that I’ve both learned and observed over the years.

  1. Make sure someone is leading – People want to be led, and they want to be led well. This is never truer than in a time of crisis. When uncertainty and fear abound, someone must act as a steadying presence. The worst thing leaders can do in a time of crisis is recede into the background and leave everyone to speculate. When a crisis hits, make sure everyone knows who is in charge. This person doesn’t have to have all the answers or put out every fire, but you have to manage the emotional stage and help steer people forward.
  2. Control the flow of information – At first glance this may seem like an ethically questionable area, but keep in mind that I’m absolutely NOT telling you to mislead those you are leading. What I am saying is this: during a crisis everyone needs to know something but everyone doesn’t need to know everything. Too much information can overwhelm and confuse. Too little can lead to rumor and speculation. Identify the vital information and share it transparently and appropriately.
  3. Share in the pain – In a time of crisis, organizational leaders must never lose sight of the human component of their decisions. One of the easiest ways to lose the faith of those both inside and outside of your organization is to insulate yourself from the consequences of change. If salaries and bonuses are being cut, if hours are being increased, you as a leader should feel the pressure as well. In fact, as a leader you must be willing to feel it more acutely and bear a greater portion of the burden. Set an example in the difficult things, and those you are leading will follow.

As I said earlier, if you lead in any capacity for long enough, you will have to navigate some type of crisis. You likely won’t have much say in what your crisis is or when it comes, but how you respond is entirely up to you.

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