Your 3-step crisis management plan

As Henry Kissinger famously said, “There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full!”

Unfortunately, crises have no respect for our busy calendars. That is why it is of utmost importance that every organization, big or small, have a crisis management plan.

In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction. One person might be deeply affected by an incident, while another person suffers little or no ill effects. Furthermore, the Chinese word for crisis presents a good depiction of its components. The word crisis in Chinese is formed by two other characters — danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents a chance for either organizational growth or decline.

We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or other cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity. Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle.  Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality.  But there is a common three-step approach to leading in crisis that is useful to organize a leader’s thinking and efforts.


STEP 1: Before the crisis — inoculate your organization!  Leaders must “generate leadership” in their organization.

  • Give people at all levels the opportunity to lead experiments or projects that will provide them confidence while assisting your organization to adapt to change.

  • The leader must demonstrate their commitment to ethics and organizational values. This is important to building trust, which will be tested during moments of stress.

  • “Run the plays but encourage initiative”.  Leaders must frequently emphasize organizational policies and priorities, but they also need to provide space for their team to show initiative and take risks.

  • Have a crisis action plan and test it.  Make sure key members of your team are aware of it as well as the organization’s succession plan.  Things may go wrong when the leader is not present.

  • Spend time “managing by walking around”.  The leader must stay “in touch” with his or her organization.  The leader must avoid getting “into a bubble” where only good news makes it way to him or her.

STEP 2: During the crisis — those nearest must act!  Leaders must quickly consider whether or not they have empowered their team.  They should consider the following:

  • A leader’s emotional intelligence that focuses on self-awareness, self-motivation, empathy, and an ability to control his or her fears and emotions publicly is critical.

  • Lead and be seen leading.  Set the tone for the organization.  Remember the team is unlikely to exceed your level of optimism.  One of the most important assets a leader has during a crisis is his or her presence.  Where should they be and who needs to see them?

  • The media can be your best friend or your worst enemy.  In our 24-hour transparent world any crisis may quickly gain the spotlight.  Who is the “face of my organization with the press”?  When I speak to the press have I carefully considered what information I want to convey?

  • Decide, delegate, and disappear.  Leaders must praise constantly, punish privately, and unleash achievement vs. demanding obedience.  You must reduce the “bystander phenomenon” whereby the probability that anyone will act is often inversely proportional to the number of people available.

STEP 3: After the crisis!  The leader must demonstrate caring, lead the organization’s efforts to learn from this experience, and set a new course.

  • Leaders must consider their own as well as their team’s psychological health.  Sadly, we have learned a great deal about PTSD in the last decade.  Consequently, leaders are accountable to engage in self-assessment, seek assistance, and scrutinize the fitness of their team.

  • Establish a process to identify lessons from the crisis and incorporate them into the organization’s plans for the future.  Insure that the entire team is involved in this process.

  • Create a new vision for the organization that provides meaning to what may be negative events while framing a future ideal.  This should consider two questions.  Who can we become? Who relies on us?

All leaders must accept that crises will occur.  Remember Murphy’s Law — Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and will likely do so at the worst moment!  Also remember Schultz’s Corollary — Murphy was an optimist!  Every organization must not only prepare for crises but also consider that a crisis may be an opportunity to become an even better, stronger, more effective team.  Successful leaders seek to inoculate their organizations in advance, empower the organization during the crisis, and learn from the crisis after the fact.   In this regard Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president may be insightful:

“These are times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life or in the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed…great necessities call out great virtue.”

   - Letter to her son, John Quincy Adams