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Crisis Leadership: The Ultimate Test of Leadership Capacity: The psychology of managing a crisis.

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D.
Author of the Social Skills Inventory

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue of crisis leadership front and center. Compared to most crises, which are usually at the regional or national level, this is a much larger global crisis. It truly presents a leadership challenge. And how leaders deal with crises can be considered the ultimate test of their capacity to lead.

What do we know about crisis leadership, and how should it apply to leadership in a global pandemic?

A leader has six duties to accomplish in a crisis.

1. Preparation.

This is the single most important task of leading in a crisis. Ian Mitroff, an expert in crisis management, argues that leaders should prepare beforehand for all possible crises that might occur and that they should have well-developed action plans.

Importantly, leaders should receive training in crisis leadership, which includes managing emotions, review of communication channels and technology, assembling crisis management task forces, and the like.

It is interesting to note that in early 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services ran a simulation of a virus pandemic, very much like the current crisis, the results of which suggested that the US was woefully unprepared (the Obama administration also held a pandemic response training for incoming Trump administration officials in January 2017). An action plan document also existed that would have helped the administration deal with the crisis early on, but it was ignored. Preparation, and being vigilant, are critical for leading in a crisis.

2. Consult with Experts.

A crisis leader needs to consult widely with scientists, economists, security officials – anyone who has valuable knowledge that can help in dealing with the crisis. This should include loyal advisors, but also diverse experts with different opinions, perspectives, and alliances, in order to consider all possible courses of action. This diversity of opinions helps prevent relying on narrow and like-minded strategies – the dangers associated with “groupthink” decision making, which has been shown to often lead to limited and poor decisions (Janis, 1982).

3. Communicate Clearly.

In a crisis, fast, efficient, and accurate communication is essential. The leader needs to be a “point person” – a sort of narrator, or Master of Ceremony (MC) – who coordinates the messages being sent to followers/constituents, handing off the speaking role to knowledgeable experts in the administration or organization to hear their authoritative information or opinions. There should be no inconsistent or “mixed” messages. Authentic, open, and honest communication is the key to gain the trust of followers. Confusion reigns when the leader and experts are giving contradictory information, as we saw in the Trump administration at the beginning of the crisis.

4. Facilitate Collaboration.

The leader needs to solve the crisis at all costs. In order to do this, it often requires persuading competing parties to work together for the common good. The leader needs to help all parties arrive at a shared understanding of the process and focus on the shared purpose of bringing the crisis to an end. Managing such conflicts is an important leadership skill, and the crisis leader needs to work hard to achieve win-win solutions, or, if need be, make concessions and seek a compromise. article continues after advertisement

5. Empower Leaders at Lower Levels.

Too much centralization of authority can work against solving a crisis. General strategies may not apply to certain entities and locations, so a leader should empower lower-level leaders to take initiative and apply innovative solutions. In the coronavirus epidemic, we have seen a great many regional and local leaders – governors, mayors – taking actions that are different from the federal response, but actions that meet the needs of their constituents. The top-level leader, however, needs to monitor lower-level leaders’ actions and correct them if they are out-of-line with best practices and too far from the agreed-upon, general strategies.

6. Restore a Sense of Well-Being.

Crises can be devastating events for members of the nation or organization. Crisis leaders need to exhibit self-control, presenting a calm and confident demeanor. They need to be positive yet realistic in their outlook (“we shall overcome”). This is critical for helping restore a sense of psychological safety in followers.

It is also important that the leader demonstrates empathy with victims in a crisis. They need to feel comforted and supported by the leader. A successful crisis leader should also be inspirational – motivating first responders, healthcare workers, and other crisis workers to continue the battle. The leader should impart the message that things will “return to normal” but that lessons will be learned to help prevent the crisis from reoccurring.

Clearly, how leaders handle crisis situations can either make them or break them.


Mitroff, I. (2007). Best practices in leading under crisis. In J.A. Conger and R.E. Riggio (Eds.), The practice of leadership. (pp. 263-276). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Janis, I. (1982). Groupthink (2nd ed.), Boston, MA: Wadsworth.