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Eight Roles Crisis Leaders Should Be Able to Assume

This article discusses eight roles that leaders should be able to assume during a time of crisis.

A great deal of material exists to describe the characteristics of effective leadership. In a course such as this, we can’t begin to explore this material to the extent that it deserves. We can, however, explore a number of leadership responsibilities that high stakes leaders should be able to effectively assume, when the need arises. In this activity, we’ll do just that – explore a collection of leadership responsibilities that will become particularly important in times of crisis.

In an article titled Crisis Leadership: A View from the Executive Suite, author and researcher Tony Jacques shares the results of an extensive study of leadership responsibilities in a crisis environment. Drawn from surveys and interviews of CEOs and other c-suite executives, Jacques presents eight roles that crisis leaders must be ready to assume in order to be truly effective in their efforts to prevent, prepare for, and manage crises. If you have the appropriate credentials, you can access the full article here.

In the following paragraphs, you will learn a little about each of these roles. For our purposes here, they will each be covered at a very high level, simply to give you a sense of the underlying purpose of each role.

As you read about these eight crisis leadership roles, you should consider two questions for each: 1) What level of capability do you currently have in each of these areas? And, 2) What level of capability currently exists in the members of your leadership team? These are difficult questions to answer – but you will be asked to try a little later in this module.

Here is the full list of roles that crisis leaders must be willing and able to assume at their organization. Each will be explored in a bit more depth in the paragraphs that follow.

1) Encourage a proactive crisis culture.

2) Establish and enforce standards and processes.

3) Prioritize and set an example.

4) Properly assess the full range of risks.

5) Promote open upward communication.

6) Build relationships before the crisis.

7) Be ready to deal with the news media.

8) Encourage a learning environment and share experience.

Here is a little more detail on each of these eight leadership roles:

1) Encourage a proactive crisis culture. It is easy for leaders in an organization to focus primarily on the urgent day to day issues that must be managed to effectively lead the business. Crisis preparedness is not one of these urgent issues. In order for organizations to dedicate time and energy to crisis prevention and preparation, these items must somehow make their way onto the agendas of company leaders. This will not happen without the encouragement of the organization’s senior-most executives.

2) Establish and enforce standards and processes. Similar to the previous item, senior leadership must be committed to the creation and enforcement of standards and processes in pursuit of exceptional risk management and crisis prevention. Senior leaders from safety sensitive industries such as aviation and nuclear power require significant commitments to safe policies, procedures, and practices as core elements of their company’s strategy. In other industries, commitments to this extent are rare. To be truly well-prepared for the inevitable crisis that will impact your organization, high stakes leaders must find a way to inspire a commitment to standards and processes that facilitate the identification of potential organizational threats and the actions necessary to address them.

3) Prioritize and set an example. High stakes leaders must not only make sure that crisis preparedness is an element of the company’s culture (see item #1 on this list), but they must also make sure that capability development and process improvement are priority requirements. Crisis preparation training and process reviews are neither exciting nor simple exercises to administer – but they must take place to ensure the appropriate levels of organizational readiness. Additionally, crisis preparedness cannot be a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. Senior enterprise leaders need to commit themselves to participation in these exercises to underscore their importance.

4) Properly assess the full range of risks. The underlying objective in this role is ensuring that organizations are scanning widely enough to identify risks that are beyond the obvious. It is common for organizations to look internally for things that could go wrong and produce some sort of crisis-level event. But crises can come from external sources as well. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example. While most companies had not given a single thought to the potential of a global pandemic and its impact on their business, exceptional high stakes leaders were thinking about scenarios where a significant health issue, such as a particularly difficult flu season, could create a challenge for their enterprise. This is because they were assessing an appropriately broad range of potential organizational risks.

5) Promote open upward communication. Many organizations struggle to create the necessary culture to motivate employees throughout the enterprise to identify threats and opportunities for improvement and share these observations up the chain of command. High stakes leaders must establish the expectation that crisis prevention begins with vigilance and continues with a willingness to call out threats as they are detected. We all know from our experiences in organizations that this is much more easily said than done. Many forces are at work that inhibit this sharing of information. The removal of these inhibitors is a key element of promoting open upward communication.

6) Build relationships before the crisis. This entire course has been dedicated to demonstrating the importance of building relationships with stakeholders. This role has been presented as a key element of resilience as well. Having this item appear on a list of vital crisis leadership roles should help to underscore the value of these efforts. Strong stakeholder relationships are quite possibly the most valuable tool high stakes leaders can have in their crisis management toolkit.

7) Be ready to deal with the news media. High stakes leaders must be prepared to engage their media stakeholders. Earlier in this course, you were provided a very detailed description of why this is important. The appearance of this item on a list of critical crisis leadership roles suggests to us not only that such a readiness is important, but also that it isn’t always done particularly well. As you know that your team will ultimately be facing a crisis situation, being prepared to engage the media – in fact, being prepared to face your full complement of stakeholders – will demonstrate that you are appropriately aware of and engaged in your situation.

8) Encourage a learning environment and share experience. As you learned in the third stage of the Resilience model that was presented earlier, it is very important that employees learn from their experiences not only from crises, but also from near misses. Additionally, it’s insufficient to learn strictly from personal experience. The most effective organizations are able to leverage mechanisms and culture to learn from the experiences of others. High stakes leaders must ensure the availability of these mechanisms and the nurturing of the appropriate culture to enable experience sharing.

There are, of course, many more than eight roles and responsibilities that high stakes leaders will be asked to assume before, during, and after a crisis to effectively lead a resilient organization. As a great starting point for your exploration of crisis leadership, however, this is a fine collection of responsibilities that you must be able to support.


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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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