Strategic Crisis Leadership: Being an Effective Leader in the Midst of Chaos

By Bruce T. Blythe and Hart S. Brown|2020-12-18T10:39:22+00:00December 1st, 2020|0 Comments

What would you do in the following three situations?

Crisis Leadership Moment #1

Imagine that your employees decide to take action against the executives and the company. It starts with a sickout on a Friday. It is followed by periodic and disruptive protests outside the facility. They blame the company for only looking at profits and are willing to risk the safety and health of employees. Executives names, phone numbers, salaries, and home addresses are published on social media. The executives are being threatened and there is talk of a class action lawsuit, but you need them to continue to work or contractual requirements will not be met. What do you do?

Crisis Leadership Moment #2

You learn that one of your facilities has been identified as a source of pollution into the environment 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. A water source and the surrounding soil have all tested positive for the contaminants. Various forms of wildlife 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 everyone 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. Your position within the company is on the line and criminal charges are possible against executives. 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?

Crisis Leadership Moment #3

Two shooting events hit your facilities simultaneously in different locations with the news reporting it is likely related to an activist group. Do you close all your facilities throughout the enterprise as a safety precaution? If so, for how long? If not, what are alternative responses?


Each of these situations requires a “defining decision.” Initial information is usually wrong. Rumors are 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 for you and your family.

Now, make those decisions that may have life and death implications. Act in a manner that will be scrutinized 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

There are significant differences between Tactical Crisis Management and Strategic Crisis Leadership. The table below gives some of the high-level differences:

Strategic Crisis Leadership involves high-leverage skills that are vital to corporate recovery in the midst of a disaster. 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 organization – and, your own ethical standards that may be tested to the limit.

Crisis leadership is more about who you are than what you know. No learned crisis leadership skill will overcome a lack of character, ethics or integrity. An effective crisis leader must act deliberately, quickly, and effectively with honesty, high moral values and ethical standards.

In order to help assure their leaders will act with care, compassion, concern, and commitment when crises hit, crisis prepared organizations develop overarching response guidelines for their crisis managers to follow. Here are five guiding principles for managing crises:

  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 and ethical guidelines
  5. Available, visible and open communication with all impacted parties

Be, Know, Do

The U.S. Army defines the three basic components of leadership as Be, Know, Do. “Be” is about who you are. “Know” is about the skills and knowledge you have acquired. And “Do” is about the actions that you take on a timely basis. Purposeful attention to all three components of Strategic Crisis Leadership will increase the likelihood that you’ll know what to ask, what to do and how to do it. And more importantly, learn to manage the unexpected.

Be, know, do…what are the skills needed to meet these Strategic Crisis Leadership responsibilities? There are many. But here is a simple introductory prescription for effective crisis leadership.

What do you need to be? Caring. Demonstration of caring is more important than all other leadership traits combined, according to research by the Center for Risk Communications. If you come across as uncaring or untrustworthy people will become outraged. Caring during crisis response is not a feeling. Caring is a set of corporate and personal behaviors that elicit the perception in impacted stakeholders that you and your company truly care.

What do you need to know? As a leader, you must have an informed clarity for crisis resolution. Without that clear, compelling, and believable vision for response and recovery, you will not be able to adequately create confidence of others in your ability to lead during times of crisis.

And do? The single most important action is two-way communication. Simply put, you will never be any better at responding to crises than your communication. That involves how well you listen to obtain the facts, knowing when to speak, knowing what to say, and how well you deliver the necessary messages openly to impacted stakeholders.

Scenarios Revisited

So, how does this apply to real life situations? There were three scenarios at the beginning of this article of dealing with employee activism, environmental exposure to a toxic contaminant, and the simultaneous shootings at two facilities by an activist group.

In applying effective crisis leadership principles, it is recommended that you look at three rules of thumb to focus your response. First, identify the core assets of the organization that are potentially at risk. Are people in harm’s way? Is there possible damage to your company brand, reputation, shareholder value, or the ability to conduct business? Will the ability to deliver goods or services be significantly disrupted? Secondly, identify all stakeholder individuals and groups who are harmed (real or perceived). Do your best to address their needs and concerns. And third, anticipate the potential progression of events and reactions by stakeholders.

With the employee activism scenario, consider first addressing the wellbeing of your most important asset, your people. Create new safety standards within the workplace. If you don’t already have what you need, move fast. The early bird gets the worm during crisis management. Once your people are addressed, focus on stakeholders who might need priority attention. It could be customers, or your suppliers and distributors. Prioritize and do what you can to address the needs or concerns of all impacted stakeholders. Those stakeholders that you don’t adequately address will likely be the problem areas. Anticipate their needs by imagining what you would want or expect if you were in their position.

The toxic exposure scenario involves information that is known to you, but not to those who may be at risk. It would be easy for uninvolved advisors to recommend that you come forward immediately and let the chips fall where they may. It’s hard to hide damaging information and is best to follow the guiding principles of taking responsibility in an honest and ethical manner. In general, good crisis management will require protection of the greater good over personal concerns. With that said, there are times in the real world of crisis management when the decision is made to conceal known information. Right or wrong, if the damage of being forthcoming is considered too much to bear, some people will decide not to come forward. If you are tempted to conceal, you must come up with a rationale that will pass the “reasonable person test.” Consider confidentially getting a multidisciplinary group of advisors to discuss your best alternatives. Possibly, a specialist in toxic exposure should be consulted. Anticipate the reactions of people who perceive harm if they learn of your concealment. If you do not feel comfortable defending your rationale on the front page of the newspaper, you are taking a serious risk that could take you and or the company down. Lying and concealing information are two ways to escalate the severity of your crisis. Think: Arthur Andersen, Bill Clinton, and Martha Stewart.

Finally, the scenario of a simultaneous shootings in two work locations was presented. Your employees and customers (if they come onsite) will have the natural fear of reoccurrence. The issue emerges of not wanting to reinforce the violent acts of a hostile activist group. Shareholders may have fears that their investments are not secure. The media may sensationalize the story and even look for ways to blame your company. Your job of crisis leadership is to anticipate these and other reactions by impacted stakeholders and address their needs. A strong physical security response may be needed to help assure employees and customers along with leveraging counseling services such as Disruptive Event Management (DEM). Possibly, an aggressive approach to help apprehend the offenders would be effective, like offering a generous reward for information and arrest. Methods for efficiently giving and receiving communications would be a vital component for dealing with this crisis.


With no prior notice, you must make on-the-spot decisions and implement rapid-fire responses when crises unexpectedly strike. Your people will be stressed-out and deadlines time compressed. Information will be not be adequate and the high consequences of your responses could determine if people will be harmed, careers ruined and your company seriously damaged.

Experience and empirical research all seem to agree. It is best to continue improving as a leader through resources such as Executive Optimization. Crisis leadership planning, training, tabletop exercises and simulations – they all play an important part in helping you become a crisis leader. Hopefully, these guidelines will help you begin the important journey toward personal and organizational crisis preparedness.

About the Authors
Bruce Blythe is an internationally acclaimed crisis management expert. He is the owner and Executive Chairman of R3 Continuum that provides employers with integrated crisis readiness, crisis response, and employee return-to-work services. They have assisted hundreds of companies worldwide with crisis, workplace violence, and business continuity planning, training and exercising. They also provide consultations worldwide for defusing serious disputes, hostilities and workplace violence threats. On average, they respond onsite to 1300 international workplace crises of all sorts per month. Finally, they work with insurers and large employers in accelerating employee return-to-work for workers comp, disability, and non-occupational injury claims throughout North America.

Hart Brown serves as Senior Vice President for R3 Continuum, bringing over 20 years of experience in both the public and the private sectors. Hart has provided crisis and risk management services across 50 countries, to hundreds of events including the World Cup, one of the largest bankruptcies in US history and one of the largest mass shootings in US history.

Mr. Brown regularly responds to organizations involved in crisis events, security events, threats of violence and cyber incidents. Because of that, Hart works closely with insurance programs in commercial, personal, benefits and specialties markets supporting risk modeling and financial assessments as well as emerging risks, reputation protection, crisis management, active shooter and assault protection, and business interruption. He has an M.S. from Texas A&M University and holds certifications in organizational resilience, business continuity, loss prevention, as a commercial lines coverage specialist and as an ethical hacker.

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