Public Leadership Through Crisis 3: Be brave, calm, adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response

6 mins read

written by Matt Andrews

In my last blog post I emphasized the importance of leaders in crisis situations being (i) motivated for the public good, (ii) honest about—but not hampered by—self-doubt, (iii) committed to communicating more than ever (to help people deal with fear and accept change), and (iv) aware of who their key people are and how to motivate and mobilize those key  people.

We wonder if you agree with these ideas?

These may seem like simple ideas to start with, but many crisis situations are exacerbated by leaders who do not adhere to these lessons. Instead, we see many leaders making mistakes like thinking too much about themselves during crises (their careers, political futures, etc.), giving into their doubts, communicating poorly,  or centering the work too much on themselves (and failing to mobilize the key people around them or to help these people embrace change). Often they fall into these traps because they think the only thing that matters is getting to a solution, fast; actually, leading your people matters just as much (if  not more).

You need to be aware that these traps are there. And beware of them. They can cause you and your people to fall over the edge.


Building on this, Katharina Balazs (cited in the last post) reflects on a concern we have for anyone expected to lead in these crisis situations. She talks about how leaders (and others) ‘freeze’ in the face of crises when they become defensive about the past and give in to doubts about moving effectively into the future. She, and her co-author, write that the “fear of a narcissistic injury, of having to acknowledge that the present state of affairs is not good enough, can contribute to a frozen stance [where] we seem to prefer the familiar “bad” to the promising unknown.” (Transforming the mind-set of the organization (Kets De Vries and Balazs, 1999,646)).

Being ‘frozen’ like this—even for a short while—can be extremely costly in the face of a crisis. You and your people can lose time in responding, and confidence can be even more undermined, making your leadership challenge even harder than when it started. So we want you as a leader to be very aware of how you can fall into this trap and how you can avoid it.

Our main message is that you can overcome ‘crisis freeze’ by being brave, calm, and adaptive. But what does this mean?

First, be brave: take responsibility, don’t defend the past, or point fingers. Crisis situations demand that leaders pay particular attention to events happening in front of them, and take responsibility for getting their people through those things. It is not the time to defend the status quo because you or your people are invested in it and think you will lose face if it is questioned. It is also not the time to point fingers at others for whatever you think they may or may not have done to get you into this place. Such  strategies will just waste time. They are part of  what Tim Johnson calls “abdication bias” in his book Crisis Leadership. This is where a leader ‘eschews responsibility’ in a crisis, or ‘blames others’. You are the leader. Your people need you. You must take responsibility. Let this responsibility call you to action, and counter any inclination to ‘freeze’. And remember a lesson from Nancy Keohn: we can  learn  through these processes how to become more brave. Just resist passing the buck. It will hurt you and your people.

Consider, for example, a Yale School of Management article and video below about taking responsibility. The video is of Naomi Hirose, president of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, discussing his company’s response to the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The interview is quite long, and worth watching, but if  you don’t have time the first minute is key—where he  says, simply, ‘The most important thing is… do not run away. That’s the most important thing.’

Second, be  calm: respond quickly, not rashly. In Crisis Leadership, Tim Johnson also warns against “intervention bias”. This is ‘the urge to overreach and take on tasks for which an organization is ill equipped’. This can cause more difficulty for your organization; you can make big mistakes early on that further undermine trust, or actually break down the capabilities your organization has by stretching it to do too much too fast. Instead, you need to move fast but thoughtfully. Management author David Baldoni says ‘Act promptly, not hurriedly’ and notes that ‘A leader must provide direction and respond to the situation in a timely fashion. But acting hurriedly only makes people nervous. You can act with deliberateness as well as speed.’ He cites the legendary basketball coach John Wooden as saying, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

We recognize this is extremely difficult to do; balancing the need to move quickly but not rashly. I will detail ideas for doing this in future posts, but right now  consider the English Parliamentarian David Lamy on his experience dealing with riots in London. Get a sense of how Lamy balanced calmness and action—especially using a ‘prioritizing’ strategy and having  the support of a ‘trusted team’ (remember the  importance of knowing your key people?) by watching this video. 

Third, be adaptive; there is no perfect crisis response. To demonstrate this, read the Harvard Business Review article by author Daniel McGinn on Leading, Not Managing, in Crisis. He cites three authors (Tim Johnson, and Nancy Koehn, both of whom I have already referenced, and James Haggerty) who write about leadership in crises, and shows how all three offer different ideas on ‘how’ to lead in crisis. One can be sure that there are many more ideas on ‘what’ to do in every situation as well. McGinn’s article reminds me that there is no perfect or one-best-way to doing crisis leadership. Instead, we need to be open to learning from different sets of ideas, try them out, and adapt. Your job as a leader is to balance fast and slow, action and patience, and more; adapting your style and behavior to the situation you find yourself in. You will not get it perfectly right. That is ok. The biggest mistake you can  make is to wait for perfection. As the saying goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the  good.” And leaders must find how to be ‘good’ or ‘good enough’ in the face of crises and resist waiting on perfection.

Consider this comment by the World Health  Organization’s Michael Ryan on lessons learned from Ebola outbreaks: there is so much you need to do, and you need to move fast, so don’t be held up by the need to ‘be right’ or perfect.

What do you think of these ideas?

  1. Do you think that you need to be brave to take responsibility for leadership in crises?
    • How can you help yourself and your people from falling into the trap of defending the systems and processes you put in place?
    • How can you help yourself and your people from falling into the trap of blaming others?
    • Are there any disciplines you can put in place to ensure you and your team ‘do not run away’ but instead always take responsibility for addressing the crisis in front of you?
  1. Do you agree  that  you need to balance calmness with action in leading through crises?
    • What mistakes could you make if you act too fast, without enough  thought?
    • What mistakes could you make if you act too slow, without enough  urgency?
    • How do you think you can balance calmness and action?
  1. Do you agree that there is no ‘perfect’ way to lead through crisis, but that you and your people need to work out your own approach to being ‘good enough’?
    • How can ‘waiting for perfection’ hurt your efforts to respond to a crisis?
    • What approaches could you take to finding a ‘good enough’ approach to leading through crises?

[Hint: you may want to try and identify different ideas on how to lead, try things out, see how they work, and adapt them, continually; you may want to be humble and  constantly ask  others for feedback on how your leadership behavior is affecting  others; etc.]

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 4 of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website


  1. Liderar em tempos de crise ou não, é muito complexo, pois envolve situações políticas que muitas vezes estão inseridas no contexto.

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