How to Manage a Crisis as a Leader

There are many things you need to know when you are in charge of others – how to manage a crisis as a leader is one of them.

A crisis is an event which can cause instability, create negative outcomes, or have dangerous consequences. As a leader, it is your responsibility to both identify a crisis and support actions that manage it and help your team through it.

Recognizing Potential Crisis

As a leader, you must always be scanning the environment for potential crises. You can do this by paying attention to your people, management and general atmosphere of your organization.

Some crises are easier to spot than others. A hurricane heading towards your town, for example, generally comes with warnings, so you can prepare for what is to come. Other crises are less obvious. Your team getting stressed because they are stuck on a project that will cost your company thousands of dollars if not complete on time is one such example. Another is your team not having the appropriate resources to do their job safely, which could put them in potentially dangerous situations.

As a leader, it is your job to scan for potential crises. The key here is to pay attention to what your team is saying and doing, as well as monitor your organization.

In this pre-crisis stage, you can act proactively to lessen the impact of a potential crisis or in some cases avoid the crisis altogether. If you know that a hurricane is coming, you can fortify your building and ensure your team makes it to safety before the hurricane hits. If you know your staff needs better gear to make their jobs safer, you can get them that gear.

Be diligent in pointing out potential crises to others as they may not understand what is coming. Be clear in what you are seeing. Be factual while communicating your emotions. An example could be: “I am worried that if we do not get the proper safety gear for my staff, someone could get hurt and the company could be held liable.” This type of statement not only shares your concern about your staff but also mentions what could happen to the company if concerns are not addressed.

“In a moment of crisis, reactions set the leaders apart from the followers.” – Peter B. Stark

The Crisis

OK, so the crisis hits! What do you do?

First off, you need to manage yourself. You are the leader and need to lead. Take a few breaths. Realize that you are being impacted like everyone else. William Coombs, author of Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding, writes about the fact that when people are in an emotionally charged situations (e.g. in a crisis), their ability to process information can be reduced by up to 80%. As a leader, you need to make sure that you can communicate effectively with others.

Here are a few tips on how to manage a crisis as a leader:

  1. Be concise. Do not use lots of unnecessary verbiage. If you need someone to leave the building, tell them to leave the building. Do not give complicated instructions. If someone is very emotional, do not engage in a five minute relaxation exercise with them. Say instead: “Take 3 deep breaths and calm down!”. The more you talk, the less they will hear.
  2. Be firm and empathetic. You need to let people know you are in charge while at the same time, not come across as a jerk. For example, “I know you’re scared but you need to…” or “Do this first and we’ll talk later.”
  3. Do not communicate too many things at once. The rule of thumb is to communicate up to three things and nothing more. For example: “Call Bob’s mother, let her know Bob is going to General Hospital and meet her there.” This type of message is clear, simple and to the point.

Your goal in a crisis is to ensure the least amount of physical, emotional and psychological harm is done as possible. To learn more about crisis communication I highly recommend W. Coombs’ book that I mentioned above.


After the Crisis

OK, the crisis is over. Your job is done, right?

Not so fast! It is tempting to say all is well and move on. This is a huge mistake that many leaders make. Don’t be that leader.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure everyone is alright. You need to look at their physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual well-beings. As a trained Critical Incident Stress Debriefer, I have often arranged to have a trained debriefer come in and talk with my team or select individuals after a crisis.

(NOTE: For those people who are not trained in this area, I want to let you know that trained debriefers should never debrief a situation they are involved in either directly or indirectly as they may have emotions that they themselves need to work through.)


Once you have ensured that everyone is as OK as they can be, it is time to reflect on the situation and learn from it. Here are some questions to ask yourself and your team:

  1. What did we do well?
  2. As a leader, what did I do well?
  3. As a leader, what could I have done differently?
  4. What could have others done differently?
  5. What steps can we put in place to support a positive outcome in a future crisis?
  6. What is one thing each person did in the area of self-care that helped them recover after the crisis?
  7. What is one thing each person learned about themselves as a result of the crisis?

This reflection piece is so important. If it is skipped, no learning takes place and thus the crisis is more likely to repeat itself in the future with no proactive measures put in place.

At some point in your career, you will be dealing with crisis as a leader. The question is: “How well you will deal with that crisis?”. By taking to heart this article and the suggestions given, you will be better equipped to spot a crisis, deal with it and learn from the it.

If you have any experience or know how to manage a crisis as a leader, be sure to leave us comments below. If you haven’t managed many crises before, or would like to learn more about leadership during stressful events, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter! It is free and full of practical information that you can put in practice right away!

John Maloney
John Maloney is a leadership instructor, a life coach and a contributing writer at Online Leadership Network. He has over 22 years of experience as a front line staff, team leader and program coordinator at a large non-profit organization, as well as a Masters Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with focus on Leadership in the 21st Century.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected


Latest Updates

Related Articles

Tips for Body Language for Leaders

In one of my recent articles I have talked about the importance of dress in leadership. Today, I will address body language for leaders. In the military, we have a phrase: "dress and deportment". By...

How to Look Like a Leader

If you want others to follow and respect you as an authority figure, you have to learn how to look like a leader. Self-awareness is the first skill every new and aspiring leader should...

How to Lead with Confidence

If you have ever been put in any position of authority, you already know the cold, hard truth about leadership. It's all about confidence. In fact, how to lead with confidence is one of...

How to Put Leadership Theory into Practice

When Greg and I started on our journey of developing our leadership business, we were told by many people that they were very interested in learning how to put leadership theory into practice. We...