How Executives Should Manage a Crisis


Executive leadership in a crisis is difficult. But executives that lead well in difficult circumstances build great legacies.

Let’s take a look at how executives do that.

What is a crisis?

To start, here’s what we mean by crisis: a crisis is a critical failure that’s happening very quickly. That might seem obvious, but it’s worth digging into the two components that make up a crisis – the impact of the failure and its speed.

Both of these components shape what’s required in a response. Non-critical failures are issues that may not require proactive, widespread communication. Slowly developing failures allow more time for data collection, planning, and collaboration.

But crises must be addressed with proactive communication and decisive action. That’s a lot of pressure.

With that in mind, here’s what happens – and what should happen – in a crisis.

In a crisis, the natural human response is to deny reality.

When people experience failure, denial is one of the most common reactions. And a crisis is certainly a failure.

Even if it’s not a personal failure, executives will often perceive it that way. Their identities are frequently so tied into organizational performance that corporate failures feel personal. And there’s an element of truth to the fact that any company issue starts and ends with top level executives.

People lie about failure. They cover it up. They minimize its importance. Unfortunately, denial only makes the crisis worse.

In a crisis, executives need to show courage.

Courage is the underlying foundation of any good crisis response. Executives need to own up to a crisis and face it head on.

Practically, here’s what that means. 

Show an abundance of ownership. Executives should communicate total ownership of the situation. Don’t waste breath pointing fingers or playing blame games. People respect leaders who can own the failure and move forward to fix it.

Gather a team. Before the crisis, executives should have an emergency response plan in place. When the crisis hits, that will enable the quick formation of a response team to add insight into decision-making.

Act decisively. The urgency of a crisis means that executives won’t be afforded a ton of time to deliberate; there’s no room for analysis paralysis. People will be encouraged by the idea of a solution, and solutions have to be created and communicated quickly with conviction.

Communicate with calmness. People look to leaders for reassurance in a crisis. Executives can’t show panic or appear flustered.

Communicate with passion. Executives need to convey a passion – both against the failure that’s occurred and for the solution they’re proposing. That may mean using more emotive or narrative language than usual.

In a crisis, executives should lead differently than they would in normal times.

The bottom line is that adaptive leadership is really important for success across contexts, and that’s especially true in a crisis.

Executives simply can’t function in a crisis the way they would function in a normal context. When things fail fast, there’s not time to accumulate mounds of data, collaborate broadly with stakeholders, and gather widescale buy-in before making a decision. 

A leader who’s steady and consistent in a normal context may appear slow and unresponsive in a crisis. A leader who’s great at getting buy-in during normal times may struggle with analysis paralysis when things hit the fan. Instead of maintaining status quo behaviors, leadership styles need to change to fit the circumstances.

Admittedly, this is really difficult. There are few people who are naturally well-equipped to thrive in both normal and crisis scenarios – the behaviors that lead to success in the two contexts are very different.

But executive coaching can help to prepare leaders as much as possible – and position them to avoid failure in the first place, too.

Ready for a new approach?

At Emily Bermes + Associates, our innovative coaching engagements position executives for their best chance at success. In fact, 99% of our clients are rated as successful by direct managers.

Want to learn how to manage a crisis as well as possible – or, ideally, avoid it altogether? Let’s talk.