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Five Rules for Crisis Leadership

Many thoroughly savvy executives fail to take the potential for crisis as seriously as they should. They might have great security plans, or they might be following so-called best practices in crisis management, but they are still woefully underprepared. Dr. Jo Robertson, author of Executing Crisis: A C-Suite Crisis Leadership Survival Guide, shares her top five rules for leading an organization through turbulent times.

1. No successful crisis response begins on the day of the crisis.

It takes preparation to plan for crises and to proactively have the elements in place to suss out potential crises and derail them before they happen. This forward-thinking approach requires a structure and process not only for responding to a disruption and resuming operations quickly, but to stand a better chance of avoiding crises entirely. Ad hoc responses built on the belief that the organization has good people who know how to run things are not as effective as planning and practicing for success. What sports team would consider not practicing their best strategy for winning a championship? Just because they have top players doesn’t mean those people will be adept at interacting with each other quickly when under pressure without practice.

2. Do the right thing. Follow your mission statement.

What are the things you explicitly state are core to your mission? If putting your employees or customers first is among them, then your leadership during a crisis must demonstrate that or it’s just lip service. Truly leading in a crisis means making very hard decisions and leading by example.

3. “Trust us” never works.

In a crisis, you can’t just spin the side of the story you want. You must provide information to the satisfaction of the key stakeholders you are trying to convince. Answer stakeholders’ questions with specificity—this is key. For example, when communicating return-to-work decision making during the pandemic, successful organizations itemized circumstances that would either enable or stall reopening, such as a 14-day downward trajectory in COVID-related hospitalizations in states where the business operates.

4. Don’t assume you can manage a crisis by continuing to do things the way you have always done things.

There is huge value in understanding company culture, but, frankly, believing one knows what is the best practice when one has not experienced other contexts can create artificial blinders to potentially better ways of doing things.

5. Break your own news.

Let’s be clear: bad news doesn’t smell sweeter with time. And it’s certainly not going to go unnoticed the longer it’s left to fester. Organizations that are up front about crisis response and mistakes will regain and retain customer trust faster than organizations that hope errors will go undiscovered.

© Dr. Jo Robertson