Characteristics of Effective Crisis Leadership

6 min read · 16 October 2022


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This essay was originally published on 51CM on 16 Oct 2022, and was edited and re-published in 51CM in 2023.

It’s not easy to lead during a crisis. Even when provided with a comprehensive crisis plan and a few hours of training, crisis team leaders still often struggle with the demands of the role.


Put simply, many are uncertain of what they—as crisis leaders—are supposed to do.

Crisis leadership is different from ‘business as usual’ leadership. Most team leaders intuitively realise this, and try to emulate the way they believe a ‘crisis leader’ should act. As a result, quite a few leaders overcompensate. Some become more military-like, even to the point of being slightly dictatorial.

A key factor here is that very few people actually get to see good crisis leaders in action. Therefore there’s no benchmark for how they should perform as crisis leaders.

Having conducted well over a hundred crisis simulation exercises in more than a dozen countries, I’ve seen the full range of crisis leader ‘typologies’. I’ve seen crisis leaders who simply delegate their roles and responsibilities to others in the team. I’ve seen others who are apathetic and cause their teams to fail. I’ve also seen team leaders in extreme stress and who pass this stress onto their teams like a contagious disease.

As you would expect, cultural factors can also have an impact on crisis leadership. Cultural norms not only affect how leaders lead, but also the expectations of team members regarding the leader’s role.

In an earlier article, I discussed how to develop capable crisis leaders in your organisation.

In this article, I’m going to expand on the subject of crisis leadership by detailing several of the key characteristics of effective crisis leaders.

I’ll start with one of the most fundamental attributes of an effective crisis leader: determination.


There will be multiple times during a crisis where there won’t be a clear way forward. The general mood in the room might be: “there’s nothing more we can do.” At such times, it will be easy to give up and just accept the situation as it is.

However, an effective crisis leader won’t give up so easily. They aren’t easily deterred or defeated, and will doggedly pursue options and ways forward.

In my experience, there’s always something more you can do. If there isn’t, that means there’s no longer the need to manage the event as a crisis, and you can all go home.

Of course, determination is just blind force of will. Determination alone is insufficient unless it’s backed up by technical competence. The team leader must also have a well-developed understanding of the resources available to support them during a crisis, and the advantages and limitations of each of these resources. Ability to zoom in and zoom out

An effective crisis leader will be able to maintain a strategic view of the crisis, while also maintaining a granular view of each situation within that crisis. The leader’s ability to zoom in and out will help ensure that any tactical plans are properly integrated with any strategic objectives. Most importantly, this approach helps reduce the risk that specific aspects of the crisis may be inadvertently overlooked, which is always possible in a complex crisis.

The crisis leader doesn’t have the luxury of only focusing on strategy. Why? Because crisis response relies on a multitude of small tasks that are instrumental to the achievement of any grand strategy. Should any of these tasks fail, then the overall strategy may also fail. It’s therefore critical that the team leader not only set the strategy but also ensure that each underpinning task is appropriate and well executed.

To maintain this dynamic view of the crisis, the crisis leader will need to be aware of all information that comes into the team. Most importantly, they’ll need to have access to appropriate information displays and visualisations.


A crisis leader must be calm.

To be calm, the crisis leader must be well organised and methodical in their approach to managing the crisis. In this way, the leader sets the tone for the team.

In addition, the crisis leader must be able to regulate their emotions. Effective emotional regulation requires a delicate balance of dispassionate action and empathy for the victims. Here’s a few practical techniques the team leader can apply during a crisis to remain calm:

  • Applying effective breathing techniques.
  • Ensuring they’re well-rested and have access to decent food (avoid too much caffeine and stay away from energy drinks).
  • Taking a moment to formulate thoughts before speaking.
  • Seeking input before making a decision (the process of seeking input and addressing points raised will help to slow the pace of team activity and provide time for proper consideration).
  • Enforcing a team process.
  • Using an even tone of voice (not raising their voice, not increasing pitch etc).

Like panic, calmness is infectious. If the team leader is calm, the team will be calm.

Positive and hopeful

There will be dire times during most crisis events.

The crisis leader must acknowledge these moments, but then continue to drive action. As noted earlier, they must show determination by not giving up (there’s always a way!). Regardless of the challenge, they must not allow their emotions to get the better of them and must not allow themselves to become pessimistic. No sighing. No hanging their head in despair. No negative language.

A positive team will be better able to identify opportunities and will be less affected by setbacks. If the team leader can remain positive and hopeful, the team will follow their lead.

Maintain momentum

The crisis leader must maintain the team’s momentum. Momentum equals action, and. actions save lives. If the team stalls for any reason, key actions will grind to a halt. Actions such as information collection, planning, task allocation, and task monitoring may all slow or stop.

A key role of the crisis leader is therefore to drive the crisis response process. They must resist any potential for a loss of momentum. If a particular aspect of the crisis requires additional attention, rather than focus the entire team on that particular aspect, the leader should designate a few people to focus on that problem. This small team can work on the problem in a separate space, then return to brief the full team on their solution. This approach allows the full team to maintain momentum and continue with the team process without distraction. The leader must also resist disruptions from senior leadership. The best way to avoid such disruptions is to proactively provide information. The crisis leader should provide updates to senior leaders hourly, and should provide supplemental updates when major events occur. Aside from the obvious objective of sharing information, these updates also help build trust and reduce the likelihood of micromanagement.

It’s also essential that the senior leadership trusts the crisis team and lets them get on and do their work. This trust can be built through the conduct of crisis simulation exercises, where the crisis team can brief leadership and establish appropriate norms and boundaries.

Self awareness

Finally, an effective crisis leader is also self aware.

If they are feeling the effects of low blood sugar, they should eat. If they are mentally or emotionally exhausted, they should nominate someone to take over their role so that they can take a break to rest and recover.

There’s no value in the crisis leader doggedly continuing to lead the response to the crisis when they are working at sub-optimal levels. The onus is on the crisis leader to recognise the need for food and drinks and to have these prepared in advance. The crisis leader must also establish shifts that align with the tempo of the crisis, and provide themselves and other team members the opportunity to rest and recover. Doing so will ensure everyone can work at peak levels of performance.

Wrap Up

There’s no doubt that crisis leadership is hard, but we make it harder by not really understanding what it is. Crisis leaders don’t need to be functional experts. Instead, they just need to direct the work of the functional experts on the team. By setting objectives, and aligning expertise and resources to tasks to achieve these objectives, they’re able to support rapid recovery. That’s the most basic requirement of a crisis leader. But just doing that alone isn’t enough. Effective crisis leaders must also be determined, calm, and positive and hopeful. They must be able to zoom in and out. They must maintain momentum. And they must be self aware, which is essential to being able to maintain peak levels of performance.

What can you do to train your crisis leaders so that they imbue these characteristics? You can start by running training specifically for your crisis leaders. Ensure that this training includes examples of positive and negative behaviours, something the leaders can relate to. Then, run simulation exercises to provide crisis leaders the opportunity to put this theory into practice. Finally, provide one-on-one coaching for your crisis leaders so you can guide them to improve.

Effective crisis leaders result in effective crisis teams, and effective crisis teams will drive an effective crisis response. We should all be spending more time building effective crisis leaders.

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