Leadership Blueprint: Leading In Crisis

Leadership Blueprint: Leading In Crisis
Summary: In times of crisis, you will need to rise to the occasion and lead with conviction, courage, and decisiveness. This article provides six tried and tested tactics to guide you in leading during a crisis.

Keep Calm, Communicate, And Delegate

Leadership has transformed over the last couple of years and will continue to transform as leaders are faced with unprecedented complexity and change emanating both externally and internally in their organizations. This series of articles titled "The Leadership Blueprint" offers a blueprint on key elements of leadership that you, as a Learning & Development (L&D) leader, can adopt and adapt to your organizational contexts. The series focuses on key leadership functions, including driving digital transformation, leading people, harnessing data, driving culture change, and focusing on the future, among others. This article focuses on the key six tactics you need to apply so that you can effectively practice high-stakes leadership.

What Is High-Stakes Leadership?

In times of crisis, emergency, and catastrophe, leaders are called to demonstrate and practice high-stakes leadership. The recent covid-19 pandemic is a great example of requiring high-stakes leadership, as was the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States. In her book "High Stakes Leadership," Constance Dierickx discusses three critical elements effective high-stakes leaders practice: the courage to make tough decisions, judgment to discern valuable information from noise, and fortitude to stay focused on the mission. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson defines three sets of dual imperatives of high-stakes leadership across three actions leaders take during high-stakes contexts: envisioning the plan of action, enrolling the right people and forming the right teams, and engaging all teams and stakeholders through deliberate execution. In his Harvard Business Review article Ash Carter, the 25th Secretary of Defense, shares his insights and wisdom on what leaders can do in high-stakes situations with 5 lessons from the Pentagon. This article discusses the six key tactics you need to be an effective high-stakes leader.

Stay Calm And Focused

In times of crisis, it is imperative that you stay calm and focused on the mission. Not doing so puts the mission and the next steps you have to take at risk. Remaining calm in the face of fear, challenge, and the unknown is foundational because it allows you to think more clearly, be present, and stay optimistic in the face of a crisis. Accepting the situation and accepting the burden and gravity of the situation are critical steps to help you remain calm and focused.

Speak With Conviction About What Is Known

It is important to speak as soon as possible about the situation and state that is known so far. Doing so instills calm in the stakeholder audience and helps manage gossip and misinformation by others. It is advisable to refrain from making statements along the lines of "we do not have all the facts yet" because this may indicate to concerned audiences that the situation is out of control.

Instill Realistic Hope

Even though the crisis you are managing may seem bleak, fearful, and confusing, it is important to keep the flame of hope alive. This flame of hope will inspire teams to find a solution to the problems at hand and keep their focus on carving a path ahead to implement. It is important here to distinguish between bloated optimism and pragmatic optimism that your team is driving forward and working to tackle the crisis.

Be Courageous And decisive With Immediate Action

Taking action to implement immediate steps is important during a crisis. Break down the obvious necessary steps visible in the present moment and empower members of your team to take them on and start implementing. Waiting to act can be detrimental to all involved, especially if lives are a stake. Also, waiting to take action can send signals of indecision and lack of control which can also have a negative impact on your team and organization. Once you delegate the tasks, you must get out of the way to let your team execute. While you must stay involved by removing obstacles, allocating resources, and helping connect the dots across people and knowledge, you must abstain from micromanaging and overburdening the team.

Take On Full Responsibility In Private And In Public

As the leader, you will need to assume full responsibility for the crisis and take action to remedy it accordingly. As Ash Carter mentions in his article, if the crisis is a result of your mistakes, you will need to come clean. If others are responsible, you will need to address that accordingly. If the crisis is a result of a process failure, you will need to fix it. It is important that you articulate the responsibility in the exact same terms in private and in public; otherwise, your credibility and reliability will be at stake.

Engage Diverse People And Teams To Problem Solve

In times of crisis, looking for helpers is the advice that Mr. Rogers' mother gave him. Here, you will need to do the same; you will need to actively see experts from diverse backgrounds and experiences that can assist during the crisis, especially if it is an unprecedented case where the solution is not known. Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla discusses how he pushed his team to make the impossible possible by cutting down the traditional eight years to develop a vaccine to eight months. Dr. Bourla's team sought insights from everyone within their organization when mobilizing to develop the covid-19 vaccine, and they deployed agile practices to concurrently explore possible solutions and eventually narrow it down to mRNA technology. During this engagement of diverse people and teams, you need to continuously evaluate existing and incoming data so that you can make sound and data-driven decisions every step of the way.


To effectively practice high-stakes leadership, you will need to take at least six actions almost concurrently. First, you will need to remain calm and focused. You will have to speak with conviction and continuously update stakeholders with what is known. Next, you will need to install realistic hope for the desired outcome of the crisis. You will need to demonstrate courage and be decisive with immediate actions while you take on full responsibility for the execution. Finally, you will need to engage diverse people and teams to ideate, innovate, and problem-solve to address the underlying crisis and provide a scalable and implementable solution to address it.