Leadership in the Age of Crisis

March 18, 2024

In an era where it feels increasingly common to leap from one crisis to another, leaders are confronted with a dual challenge: navigating organizational-level upheavals, such as supply chain instabilities, productivity challenges, and sustainability goals, alongside addressing personal adversities impacting their teams, like affordability, job security, and mental health. This constant flux has led to a significant shift in our perception of crises, moving from distinct, isolated events to a continuous stream of interconnected challenges. Leadership now requires a holistic approach that supports the organization’s strategic needs while also addressing the personal well-being of many of its stakeholders.

Historically, leadership in times of crisis mirrored the decisive and commanding nature of military tactics. In contrast, on a personal level, individuals were often left to manage crises with resilience and self-reliance. As the types of crises expanded to include broader economic, environmental, and public health issues, the distinction between organizational and personal challenges has blurred. This change demands a different leadership style that addresses both the broader, systemic challenges, as well as the individual ones.

In this evolved context, leadership is not just about making rapid decisions but also about creating an environment where both the organization and its individuals can thrive amid uncertainty. This approach to leadership in times of crisis emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence, stakeholder engagement, and the ability to adapt to the ever-changing global and personal dynamics, ensuring that both the organization and its people are equipped to face the multi-layered complexities of the current environment.

Leaders can empower their teams and enhance organizational resilience amidst continuous crises through a comprehensive approach that blends critical thinking and collective knowledge with robust support. Creating an environment where team members are encouraged to question assumptions and share insights fosters innovation, while also ensuring psychological safety, making it easier for individuals to express concerns and share ideas during difficult times. These approaches can be enhanced when leadership is transparent about organizational risks and speaking openly about organizational health.

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” – Jacinda Ardern, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand

To support team members during personal crises, leaders should integrate strategies like flexible work arrangements, access to mental health resources, and fostering a collaborative team environment. These practices, alongside building redundancy and flexibility in organizational processes, prepare the organization to maintain operations during unexpected challenges. Scenario planning and stress testing are crucial for anticipating potential crises and evaluating the resilience of systems and processes, facilitating a rapid and effective response to actual crises.

Empowering team members involves delegating authority and promoting leadership at various organizational levels, which creates a sense of ownership and preparedness to address crises directly. This distributed leadership model enhances organizational resilience, ensuring that capable decision-makers are available throughout the hierarchy to manage crises effectively.

The core of this approach is a commitment to continuous improvement and adaptability, underpinned by a culture that values feedback and iterative learning. This environment not only aids in addressing immediate crises but also equips the organization to evolve and respond to future challenges. By intertwining these strategies, leaders can build a robust framework that supports both the organizational and personal facets of crises, ensuring the development of an empowered, resilient entity capable of effective adaptation.

Diversity and inclusivity in leadership are critical in navigating the complexities of crises, offering a tapestry of perspectives that can lead to more effective solutions. A leadership team rich in diverse experiences, backgrounds, and thought processes is better equipped to understand the multifaceted nature of crises and generate a broader range of strategies to address them. Inclusivity ensures that all voices are heard and valued, fostering an environment where creative solutions can emerge from the collective insight of the team. During crises, this diversity becomes a strength, enabling the organization to approach problems from multiple angles and discover resilient pathways that might not be apparent in a more homogeneous group. Embracing this approach in leadership not only enhances problem-solving capabilities but also supports the broader organizational culture, contributing to a more adaptable and robust response in times of uncertainty and change.

A good example of many of these concepts can be found in how Naheed Nenshi, the former mayor of Calgary, Alberta, became a paragon of crisis management during the catastrophic floods of 2013, which posed unprecedented challenges to the city. His leadership was pivotal in steering Calgary through this dire situation, marked by a commitment to transparent communication and strong community engagement. Nenshi’s frequent updates and presence on social media and in the field reassured residents, providing a sense of stability and direction amidst the chaos.

“Cities are all about people. In times of crisis, we come together to support each other, to build community and to solve our problems.” – Naheed Nenshi, Former Mayor of Calgary

His approach during the crisis was deeply rooted in the principles of diversity and inclusivity, drawing on a broad spectrum of perspectives and expertise to form a comprehensive response strategy. Nenshi worked tirelessly to ensure that the emergency response was not only swift but also well-coordinated among various stakeholders, including emergency services, government bodies, and community organizations. This collaboration was crucial in mitigating the effects of the flood and in the city’s swift recovery.

Furthermore, Nenshi’s empathetic communication style resonated with the community, fostering a sense of unity and collective resilience. He was not only a figure of authority but also a comforting presence, embodying the empathetic and inclusive leadership needed in crisis situations

In this age of relentless change and uncertainty, leaders are tasked with an extraordinary challenge yet provided with a unique opportunity to reshape the future. By embracing the lessons of the past, the realities of the present, and the possibilities of the future, leaders can forge organizations that are not only resilient in the face of crises but also capable of turning challenges into catalysts for growth and transformation.

Recommended Reading

Here are three books on leadership in crisis and organizational resilience that have been very helpful to me over the years:

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A compelling exploration of unexpected, high-impact events and how they can shape our world.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins: A study on how organizations can achieve sustained excellence and navigate through challenges.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” by Brené Brown: Offers a fresh perspective on leadership as a practice of empathy, connection, and courage.