The Myth Of ‘Crisis Leadership’


Google the phrase “crisis leadership,” and you get over half a billion (yes, with a “b”) entries. It is one of the hot topics on social media now, with new entries appearing daily. Everyone in the business world is talking about it, and they all seem to characterize it the same way: that crisis leadership reflects a highly specialized skill set or psychometric profile that is significantly different than “everyday” leadership.

The spirit or intent of these articles is certainly commendable. Indeed, leadership development remains as much an art as a science, and so data-driven guidance is critically important. However, the core premise of crisis leadership as it tends to be discussed is often misguided or blatantly incorrect.

Our psychometric studies of over 50,000 leaders from around the world clearly rewrites the idea of great crisis leadership in favor of one simple idea: great leadership in crisis. This small change in word order reflects a huge difference in theorizing the nature of leadership.

Anatomy Of Servant Leaders

The classic notion of leadership emphasizes the ability to define and embrace a vision, formulate actions and goals to further it, and subsequently communicate this vision so that others are inspired to follow. Within recent decades this view has been re-framed or reinterpreted as a simple philosophy that making other people successful is the top priority of servant leadership.

Servant leadership involves three dimensions of performance: execution skills, people skills and cognitive skills. Each of these three dimensions contains an array of distinct attitudes, skills and knowledge areas. However, we are not dealing with a random set of capabilities. Instead, there is a stable set of specific capabilities that relate to each other in structured ways. That is, certain attitudes, skills and domain knowledge can predictably demonstrate low, medium and high levels of servant leadership.

Solutions-focused leadership is key to success. Continuous learning and evolving, openness to change and opportunity, calculated risk-taking and receptiveness to other perspectives — strong servant leadership offers this, and in so doing, it also happens to be the framework that facilitates effective crisis management.

Below is an outline of nine traits or tendencies that define servant leadership in all contexts and circumstances, not just crisis situations. There are additional components to leadership, but this sample of characteristics illustrates the adaptability and versatility of a strong servant leadership profile. Planning and preparation aside, in reality, the unexpected can occur at any time. To withstand the unexpected, organizations must be flexible and adaptable.

Capabilities Of Strong Servant Leaders

Execution Skills

  • Tolerance of ambiguity: Ability to resist black-and-white thinking and thus better handle situations involving uncertainty.
  • Resilience: Ability to take initiative, push for action, manage stress and maintain perspective in the face of adversity.
  • Attention to detail: Conscientiousness to critical elements in strategy or execution.

People Skills

  • Behavioral integrity: One’s deeds reliably match their words.
  • Emotional intelligence: Ability to understand, use and manage one’s own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.
  • Proactive feedback: Ability to provide direct and constructive guidance or redirection on someone’s performance.

Cognitive Skills

  • Analytical reasoning: Ability to think logically and about information or issues and associated numerical calculations.
  • Measured collaborative-consultative approach: Decisive decision-making that draws on others’ input as needed.
  • Strategic thinking: Big-picture and proactive, solution-focused mentality. The nuanced balance between drawing on empirical data and business intuition to see around corners and act accordingly.

Great Leadership: It Is What It Is

This web of interconnected and mutually reinforced characteristics helps empower individuals to lead effectively through a diverse set of conditions and circumstances. Some conditions can be positive, like business startups and mergers or acquisitions that contribute to growth modes. Others can be negative, like business downsizing, hostile takeovers, natural disasters, political upheavals or technological disruptors.

The many forms of crisis management are, therefore, merely among these many scenarios. Of course, it is important to understand that episodes of conflict or chaos typically reveal and amplify an individual’s true leadership profile. In other words, you show yourself as a poor, average or strong leader when it matters most — when the stakes are the highest.

Psychometric profiling demonstrates that leadership is not one thing, attitude, skill or piece of generic knowledge. Rather, leadership is a multifaceted construct that comprises myriad success variables related to one’s hands, heart and head. That cumulative profile either enables or disables an individual’s ability to align, motivate and mobilize teams throughout times of change, uncertainty and crisis. If your business only knows stability, then chances are it only needs managers, not leaders.