Leading in Crisis


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


In the vast literature about leadership, there is barely a mention of how receptive followers are to paying serious attention to, to respecting and listening to, their would-be leaders. This is an unforgivable omission.  People’s willingness to hear someone much less to follow them, is determined far more by the listener’s attitude than it is to the personal qualities and actions of those who would-be leaders. In the typical model of leadership, followers are essentially seen as puppets, pulled this way and that by the strong strings of the puppet master. Today, far fewer people than was true one and two generations ago are wooden puppets or dollops of moist clay waiting to be molded into the most current politically correct image of loyal followers.  Today’s political swing vote, for example, is larger than either the Democratic or Republican parties and that vote swings according to the views of the electorate and not those of its selected “leaders.”

Of late, it seems that the fates have decided to send humanity a plague of crises. I can hardly recall a single day in the last twenty or so years when the sun shone, the sky was cloudless, mankind was blameless…and there wasn’t a new disaster.  A crisis has become the new normal and our exponentially multiplying media give us scant opportunity to ignore it.

The job of leading in the midst of turmoil and threats to one’s existence is substantially different and vastly harder than when things are calm, life is predictable and the status quo prevails.  It’s a wildly different task to lead in turbulent and unpredictable conditions than it is to continue to guide and lead in the calm conditions when the past really is prologue to the present.

Then, the present, and by inference the future can be “led” or managed on the basis of the lessons of past experience. The result will be that most people feel comfortable as most problems and solutions have been seen before and current conditions require just some baby-step, evolutionary new solutions to essentially familiar problems.

In calm conditions the majority of people will accept and even embrace small incremental changes in what are seen as problems and what are designed as solutions. People are really comfortable in these conditions; there are no significant threats:  they will continue to feel their experience is valued, they are respected members of the organization, and they and their leaders have clearly gained knowledge and wisdom as they create positive changes and achieve long-term success even as some things do change.

Let us define leadership as people’s willingness to follow the guidance and directives of someone else. In the vast writings on leadership there is very little that recognizes that people’s history has a direct bearing on their respect for and belief in their leaders and, therefore, their willingness to “hear” and follow them.

In an organization with a history of success, there will usually be a high level of commitment to the organization and a high level of engagement with its mission and the work it does. High levels of commitment and engagement are the result of people’s perception that the organization is a meritocracy and fair to all, that every member can earn inclusion, acceptance and the respect of others.

In these organizations the majority of members also strongly believe that the work of the organization is truly worth doing.

Achieving strong levels of commitment and engagement also requires a strong and widespread belief in the wisdom and capabilities of the organization’s leaders. This powerful belief is based on a history of success which has improved the lives of the organization’s members.

A history of success naturally increases people’s belief in the merits of the leaders and that, in turn, strengthens the belief that success is achieved by following that leadership. As usual, the rich get richer…If these conditions are met, people’s willingness to listen to the guidance of the leaders will increase along with an even more enthusiastic willingness to follow the leaders strategy for continued success.

Continued success is vastly easier to achieve if conditions don’t require giant steps of change; if there is neither a crisis nor turmoil. Conditions of crisis, of unpredictability and uncertainty, almost always reduce people’s faith in the wisdom of their leaders and their strategy unless the leadership swiftly communicates its honest view of the new conditions, its plans for future success, and achieves visible success quickly.

In other words, if conditions are right and the organization’s leaders are already aware of changing conditions and ready to create the major changes that should successfully meet the crisis, the positive feelings that the majority of followers already have for their leaders and their organization, will strengthen. In that case, a crisis is a leader’s and an organization’s best friend.

But positive outcomes resulting from unpredictable change and turmoil are very rare indeed. The longer an organization has operated and succeeded in non-crisis conditions, the less prepared everyone, from the blue collar worker who pushes a broom to the CEO, will be to recognize the fact that a major change has occurred.  Instead, the usual process is for “leaders” to declare and operate as though the new turmoil is an accidental one-time occurrence which can be handled through the old time-tested processes.  In times of crisis uncertainty fills the universe and denial floats over everything masking any possible vestige of truth…and reasons for panic.

When a crisis is not acknowledged and the reasons why it occurred is similarly ignored, it is impossible to shift people’s thinking toward a new strategy to meet the new issues and succeed. The usual initial methods of coping with new conditions involve continuing to do whatever worked in the past, only harder, more thoroughly, and more frequently.  As crises now result primarily from changes in significant external conditions – these are not PR or HR crises – without recognizing the new facts, nothing constructive can happen.


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