What Makes Effective Crisis Leadership?

Susan S Freeman Blog

As the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic has turned from weeks into months, and possibly years, leaders are having to adjust their focus at breakneck pace. Many are going into survival mode—doing whatever it takes to preserve cash, keep their employees, and pausing or abandoning growth strategies that were set just a few short months ago. Others are fortunate to be in industries that have not been adversely impacted by the virus—and they are challenged to keep up with growth.

One thing we know for sure is that leaders need to have a vision for where the organization is headed. But is there something more? Something beyond vision that is an essential ingredient for leadership right now?

In a thoughtful article in the Harvard Business Review on April 22, 2020, Gianpiero Petriglieri, the author shares that a leader cannot rest on vision alone in a crisis.

“When a leader’s appeal rests on a vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of such visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty, or radical change. Take the coronavirus pandemic. No one had anything like it in their “Vision 2020.” Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. Because when there’s a fire in a factory, a sudden drop in revenues, a natural disaster, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a type of holding, so that we can move purposefully.

What do I mean by holding?

In psychology, the term has a specific meaning. It describes the way another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty. Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress and interpreting to the ability to help others make sense of a confusing predicament.

Think of a CEO who, in a severe downturn, reassures employees that the company has the resources to weather the storm and most jobs will be protected, helps them interpret revenue data, and gives clear directions about what must be done to service existing clients and develop new business. That executive is holding: “They think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together. That work is as important as inspiring others. In fact, it is a precondition for doing so.”

The author lets us know that groups whose leaders can hold them resolve crises more effectively than those who don’t.

“In a study of BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for example, my INSEAD colleague (and wife!) Jennifer Petriglieri observed both outcomes. She found that BP’s top talent, which the company needed to resolve and recover from the crisis, had different reactions to the crisis. Some lost faith in the company and in its leaders. Others doubled their effort and commitment. The difference between the two groups? The former was exposed to the top brass’ upbeat messages. The latter had bosses who drafted them to help clean up the mess. Despite the stress, working closely with one’s boss and colleagues on the response was more containing and informative. It reassured those who did it about the company’s integrity and long-term viability. Being held as we work through a crisis, the study concluded, is more useful than being told how bright the future is.”

How do leaders provide holding at times like these?

Petrigilieri suggests a two-step approach. First focus on institutional holding:

Tell your people:

  • What will happen to their salaries, health insurance, and working conditions.
  • What will change about how they do their work?
  • What are the key priorities now?
  • Who needs to do what?
  • Dispel rumors
  • Encourage and protect everyone’s participation even more than you usually do

Then turn your attention to interpersonal holding:

  • Offering it to others and modeling it for them.
  • To do this well you must let yourself be in the present. Your impulse may be to focus on the future but that will be little more than escapism if you cannot.
  • Witness and understand people’s immediate experience and concerns. (Even if you can’t resolve them)
  • Acknowledging distress and difficulty without giving in to powerlessness.

The author concludes in this important way: “People never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. And we will remember how our institutions, managers, and peers, held us through this crisis — or failed to.

How well are you “holding” as a leader? What’s one thing you resolve to do differently right now?


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