UM Center for Academic Innovation Logo

Lessons Learned From 35+ Years of Leading Organizations Through Crisis

Mike Barger, EdD, Professor of Business Administration and Executive Director of the Office of Strategy and Academic Innovation at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business

woman drawing on pane of glassWe live and work in a world that is becoming more complex, volatile, and uncertain every day. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided all of us with a tangible and, for many, frightening illustration of this reality. As the pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on you and your family, you have likely paid a great deal of attention to how those around you have been—or have not been—demonstrating leadership. What have you learned? Almost certainly, you have come to the conclusion that rarely has the need for exceptional leadership been so clear or so important. What should you expect from leaders in a crisis? As a crisis leader, what should your stakeholders—your families, your businesses, your employees, your communities, etc.—expect from you? A growing body of research offers some answers to these questions.

In my 35-plus years of leading organizations through crises, I’ve learned three simple principles that apply in every case:.

  1. During a crisis, everyone involved will look to organizational leaders for tangible evidence of leadership. Who is in charge? What actions are they taking? How serious is the trouble we’re in?
  2. When people look for leadership, they want and need leaders that they can believe in. Will everything be ok? Will the company survive? Will I still get the product or service or value that I expected? Will I still have a job?
  3. It is critical to truly understand and appreciate the perspectives of those most threatened by the situation. Crisis leadership is ultimately about addressing peoples’ concerns — their fears. It is not sufficient to view crises from your own perspective. You must be able to see a crisis through the eyes of others and to offer them clear, compelling, and tangible evidence of leadership.

Enroll Today | High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

The 5 Characteristics of Effective Crisis Leaders

Mike Barger headshot
Mike Barger

If you were asked to describe the characteristics that you would like that leader to demonstrate in the midst of a crisis, what would you say? From your COVID-19 experience, how can a leader instill confidence and deserve the trust of stakeholders? Not surprisingly, the most effective crisis leaders are:

  • Visible. Stakeholders want to see them in front of their teams leading the response.
  • Caring. The most effective crisis leaders are able to demonstrate a great sense of care and concern for all stakeholders.
  • Empathetic. Crisis leaders must not only care for their stakeholders, they must appreciate that some have lost or will lose a great deal as a result of the catastrophe and that their loss deserves acknowledgment and empathy.
  • Calm. Stress and fear produce anxiety in stakeholders. The most effective crisis leaders are able to remain calm, think clearly, and through their composure can help reduce stress and fear in others.
  • Assertive. Stakeholders not only want to be able to see their crisis leaders, but they want to see them doing something, to be asserting themselves, and working toward a solution.

3 Things Effective Crisis Leaders Must Understand

What do you want your crisis leaders to clearly understand – to know – in order to support your organization and its stakeholders during a crisis? The most effective crisis leaders have a crystal-clear understanding of three things:

  1. Organizational Vision. Crisis leaders should know, be able to articulate, and be able to align their crisis leadership efforts to the organization’s mission and vision.
  2. Organizational Values. If an organization’s vision describes what it is trying to accomplish, then its values describe the way it plans to get there. In a crisis, stakeholders will be looking for an organization to “walk the talk.” This is best demonstrated through values-driven leadership.
  3. Guiding Principles. Crisis leaders will be required to make an incredible number of decisions with limited information. The most effective crisis leaders create and share a set of guiding principles that can be used in the decision-making process. Examples of guiding principles include:
    • We will value, protect, and support our people.
    • We will deliver on the vision and mission of our organization.
    • We will communicate effectively and thoughtfully with all of our stakeholders throughout this crisis.

Principles such as these can help stakeholders understand how decisions will be made before they begin to judge them after they have been made.

4 Actions Effective Crisis Leaders Must Take

What should crisis leaders be doing during a crisis? Evidence points to four primary actions that are core to effective crisis leadership.

  • Communicate. Stakeholders are anxious during a crisis because their value propositions are being threatened. What do these stakeholders want and need to deal with their fear? They need information. They need clear, compelling, consistent, and reliable communication.
  • Make Decisions with Limited Information. A primary responsibility of every leader is decision-making. Unfortunately, during a crisis, leaders will be required to make urgent decisions with limited information. This will make decision-making uncomfortable, but not making decisions until all the facts are in and the choices are clear will almost certainly produce disastrous results.
  • Take Responsibility. Stakeholders will want to understand what led to the crisis and who was ultimately at fault. When it is clear that the organization or a member of the organization is at fault in a crisis, the most effective crisis leaders communicate this reality to their stakeholders at the earliest opportunity.
  • Engage Stakeholders. Stakeholder engagement may be the most valuable and important action a crisis leader can take. Exceptional crisis leaders take the time to determine how all of their stakeholder groups have been or will be impacted. Engaging with stakeholder groups shows that leaders care, empathize, are taking ownership of a resolution, and are committed to creating a stronger organization going forward as a result of what they have learned through this crisis.

During a crisis, stakeholders will be looking for tangible evidence of leadership. They will want and need leaders to believe in, and who understand and appreciate their perspective. They will not expect crisis leaders to be perfect or omniscient, but they will expect them to be visible, courageous, and committed to the best possible path forward. Are you doing all that you can to be ready for your next crisis? Your organization and your stakeholders will be depending on you.

Learn more from Professor Barger and refine your leadership skills in the new High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis course, available now on Coursera.

Recent Posts

XR Helping Hiring Managers Learn Key Interviewing Skills to Land Top Talent at U-M

XR Helping Hiring Managers Learn Key Interviewing Skills to Land Top Talent at U-M

Read More
Online MPH Program Allowed Aliya Patel to Continue Her Career, Grow Her Skillset, and Tell Her Story

Online MPH Program Allowed Aliya Patel to Continue Her Career, Grow Her Skillset, and Tell Her Story

Read More
Pete Bodary Named Faculty Innovator in Residence at CAI, Researching Assessments in Era of GenAI

Pete Bodary Named Faculty Innovator in Residence at CAI, Researching Assessments in Era of GenAI

Read More