What Does It Take to be a Good Leader During a Crisis?

Essential leadership competencies when managing the emotions of employees

Crises happen and the tricky part is no one ever sees them coming. Though organizations will never have a crystal ball, they can still be proactive and strategic in ensuring that leaders are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and abilities it takes to effectively lead through a crisis now and in the future. With the uncertainty of disruption comes negative emotional responses from employees. Thus, an integral piece of leaders effectively managing during these times is their ability to manage their employees’ emotions in order to promote the resiliency of the organization as a whole.

This article discusses the leadership competencies that are paramount during a crisis and at which stages certain competencies are most important, as well as principles leaders can follow when faced with disruption to enhance a leader’s ability to manage employees’ emotional responses during a time like this. Right now, there most likely is an urgent need to support leader and management reskilling and upskilling with thoughtful learning programs focused on developing these competencies.

Researchers such as Fener and Cevik (2015)1 discuss leadership competencies that are important during a crisis, while Wooten and James (2008) describe which of these competencies are most important for leaders during specific phases of a crisis.

Critical leadership competencies at each phase of a crisis:

  1. The signal detection phase is where leaders are becoming aware that a crisis is happening. Leaders should demonstrate competence in (1) sense making or asking the right questions to then formulate an action plan, and (2) perspective taking or putting themselves in the shoes of their employees who may be impacted.
  2. The prevention and preparation phase is where leaders should start the process of preparing for the crisis to happen. In this stage, leaders should (1) show they can highlight what is important at that moment and devote the organization’s resources there, and (2) understand the different pieces of the organization well in order to develop a comprehensive action plan moving forward.
  3. The containment and damages phase is the time when leaders should be effectively managing the disruption to ensure the situation does not get worse. Leaders should indicate competence in their ability to (1) make organizationally beneficial business decisions quickly, (2) communicate effectively by explaining necessary information and shaping employee perceptions of the situation, and (3) taking the right amount of risk; in other words, leaders should ensure the team is set up to innovate in a disruptive situation if that is the best route forward.
  4. The business recovery phase is when leaders should be thinking about what is required to get the organization back to business as usual. Important leadership competencies during this phase are (1) the promotion of resiliency within the organization; the leader should use this time to improve the organization despite the crisis, and (2) leading with integrity such that what the leader says they will do, they actually do.
  5. The learning and reflection phase is the time when leaders should analyze what they learned throughout the situation. During this phase of the crisis, leaders should facilitate a learning orientation that allows them to reflect on the crisis situation and learn from it.

When a crisis is present, leaders should attempt to understand the different phases of the crisis and apply the relevant competencies. In addition to the competencies described above, Bowers and colleagues (2017)2 describe three main principles that can guide leaders through a crisis.

  1. Leaders should understand that managing during a crisis requires more resources than might be perceived at initial stages. Leaders should ensure they are properly managing expectations of employees and continually working to acquire the resources necessary. Leaders should ensure they are properly managing expectations of employees and continually working to acquire the resources necessary.
  2. Organizations should not be overly concerned with the PR of a crisis, rather they should make sure they have a plan in place aimed at ensuring organizational success. Leaders should be wary of declaring victory in managing the crisis, as this could diminish the credibility of the leader and potentially prolong the crisis situation.
  3. Organizations should understand that not all leaders are equally suited to manage a crisis. Organizations should prepare to respond by understanding the crisis environment, organizational culture, and the leadership styles of leaders collectively, therefore, informing who can best lead throughout the crisis.

With the proper leadership competencies demonstrated during the various phases of the crisis, and an understanding of the principles outlined above, leaders should be better equipped to implement the behaviors necessary to manage the emotions of their employees during a crisis. Leader emotion management (LEM) is thought of as the leadership behaviors that are necessary when leaders are attempting to regulate their employees’ emotions to facilitate the achievement of desired outcomes (Kaplan et al., 2014).3 Research describes eight leader emotion management behaviors that leaders can engage in to effectively manage the emotions of their employees, linking these behaviors to crisis relevant organizational outcomes such as a perceived culture of support, psychological safety, trust in the leader, adaptive and task performance, and greater retention (Kaplan et al., 2014).

A leader’s ability to effectively manage their employees’ emotions during a crisis is critical. Understanding the leadership competencies to apply during certain phases of a crisis, as well as leadership principles, is important knowledge for organizations to understand when attempting to facilitate proper emotion management.

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1Business Horizons,60(4), 551-563.Fener, T., & Cevik, T. (2015). Leadership in crisis management: Separation of leadership and executive concepts. Procedia Economics and Finance,26, 695-701.

2Bowers, M. R., Hall, J. R., & Srinivasan, M. M. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership style: The missing combination for selecting the right leader for effective crisis management.

3Kaplan, S., Cortina, J., Ruark, G., LaPort, K., & Nicolaides, V. (2014). The role of organizational leaders in employee emotion management: A theoretical model.The Leadership Quarterly,25(3), 563-580.

4Wooten, L. P., & James, E. H. (2008). Linking crisis management and leadership competencies: The role of human resource development. Advances in developing human resources,10(3), 352-379.

5Mara Hesley, M.A. is a Research Analyst in SAP SuccessFactors’ Research team. Originally from Pennsylvania, Mara now lives in the central Florida area where she is a PhD Candidate majoring in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology. Her research interests involve the practical understanding of topics such as performance management, performance appraisal, feedback, and culture. She is in the last year of her PhD working on her dissertation, which is aimed at analyzing leader and employee dynamics within the feedback context. The goal of her dissertation is to better understand the ways in which a leader’s cross-cultural competence can facilitate an improved feedback environment for employees.