Four Leadership Behaviors in Effective Crisis Management

Maggie Sun
4 min readSep 21


Based on more than 21,000 leadership assessments among C-suite executives, the research team at ghSMART have learned that leaders need to cultivate four behaviors in themselves and their teams to successfully manage a crisis: decide with speed over precision, adapt boldly, reliably deliver, and engage for impact.

1. Decide with speed over precision:

Rapid decision making is key to victory in crisis management. A simple, scalable decision making framework needs to be established, which involves the followings:

· Define priorities: Set a priority list to focus on tackling the most crucial issues, for example, employee safety, customer care, etc. It’s important to keep the priority list flexible, since it needs to change with the evolution of the situation.

· Make trade-offs: Trade-offs abound in competitive environments, even more so in a crisis where leaders have to juggle between choices of quick money or long-term relationship, the urgent or the important, etc. A well-defined priority list can help leaders make smart trade-offs.

· Delegate decision making: Push decision making down to the front line as much as possible. It’s those closest to the problems who know best what to do. However, it’s also imperative to set proper boundaries of authority that indicate clearly who has the power to decide on what.

· Embrace actions: The main reason of making decisions fast is to act fast, especially in unusual and disturbing times. The only effective way to find a solution facing unknowns and uncertainties is to encourage people to act swiftly without fear of making mistakes.

2. Adapt boldly:

Adaptability is the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions that are brought about by a crisis. Leaders must be creative and broad-minded, seeking information and expertise from all possible sources. This entails:

· Define a what-not-to-do list and throw out yesterday’s play book: Cut back large expenses to spare resources for emergency need; develop new plans to deal with new challenges.

· Build direct connection to the front line: Front line people have more accurate and fresher information on the ground. Local leaders have deep knowledge of the impact of the crisis on different stakeholders of the business. Connecting with them to gain their precious input is key to the company’s success in adapting to new situations.

3. Reliably deliver:

Capable leaders take ownership in a crisis. They hold themselves responsible for business result and create a culture of accountability in the company. To that end, they:

· Maintain a daily dashboard of priority list: Review and update the list frequently according to the evolution of the crisis.

· Measure performance with KPIs or other metrics: Evaluate performance on top priorities daily or weekly and share relevant information with full transparency.

· Keep mind and body in fighting shape: Leaders need to stay agile and vigilant in stressful times even when others lose their heads. Physical fitness and emotional health are both needed to deal with predicaments.

4. Engage for impact:

Effective leaders need to take care of, motivate, and engage their teams. This is particularly important in times of crisis. In order to achieve that, they should:

· Connect with individual team members and dig deep to engage them: Reach out to each team member daily. Build a real connection with the team by relating to them on a personal level beyond work.

· Ask for help when needed: Leaders are no supermen. When leaders admit their limitations and ask for support, they not only engage people naturally but also exemplify their authenticity and trustworthiness.

· Ensure a focus on customers and employees: Collect customers’ information to understand how to best help them to live through the crisis, e.g. allowing delayed payment, shifting to providing products and services that are in short supply but essential in the crisis, etc. In the meantime, treating employees with compassion, focusing on their health and safety, and offering them critical financial or material aid to survive the turbulent time are all effective ways to gain their trust and engagement.

· Promote positive messages: celebrate any success or progress, reward act of kindness, promote a noble purpose such as saving life, generating happiness, etc. to keep everyone positive and confident to believe that the crisis will be eventually conquered.

Leadership required to manage crises can be and should be developed at all levels of organizations, including individuals without management titles. Leaders skillfully demonstrating the above four behaviors during worrying times can guide their organizations to weather any storm adeptly, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.


Nichols, C., Hayden, S.C., & Trendler, C. (2020, April 2). 4 Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis. Retrieved from

Related articles and books:

Four Competences in Crisis Leadership

Agile Leadership Explained: We Can All Be Agile Leaders and Change the World Together! (Kobo)

Agile Leadership Explained: We Can All Be Agile Leaders and Change the World Together! (Amazon)

Collet, B. (2019). Agile leadership. (Online course).



Maggie Sun

MBA, certified agile coach and experienced strategy analyst, specializing in business agility, agile leadership, Beyond Budgeting, and general management.