Leadership & Management

Leadership During a Crisis

By Anne Wong MD PhD FRCPC (@annekwong)
Originally Published, April 20, 2020

“Nothing tests a leader like a crisis.” 1  A crisis is a “serious threat to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions.”2  A crisis is often a defining moment in a leader’s career, testing the limits of their abilities, core beliefs, resolve and resilience. Ultimately, crises are an opportunity for the leader to lead with courage, purpose and humanity. 

Nowhere is this more evident than the current crisis brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. The following are some of what leaders need to lead effectively in times of crisis

1. Fundamental Tasks of a Leader During a Crisis.

Boin et al.2 identify 5 basic tasks that leaders must address throughout the crisis’ trajectory.

1. Sense-making: leaders need as much information as possible to make sense of what the situation is about. 

2. Decision making: leaders have to take decisive action 

3. Meaning-making: leaders need clear and consistent communication  to align and mobilize collective action. 

4. Accounting: leaders will need to account for what happened when the crisis is over 

5. Learning: leaders need to ensure lessons learned are used to mitigate future recurrence. Check the following for good summaries: “What makes a good leader during a crisis?" and “How to lead through a crisis"  

2. What Followers Need From Their Leaders In a Crisis

During a crisis, leaders need to be present and to show calm, confidence, clear communication, collaboration, community and compassion as summarised in The 7 C’s of Leadership in a Crisis (J. Quelsh, HBS).

The need for clear, consistent,and skillful communication cannot be stressed enough.  As Boin et al.2 bluntly state: “ Leaders who lack the ability to communicate cannot lead in a crisis” 

Gene Kallan’s book “Crisis Leadership1  stresses the importance of communication, core vision and values and compassion in leading through a crisis

Finally, leaders need to listen to their followers to understand their needs. In an excellent article on addressing healthcare professionals’ needs during  COVID 19, Shanafeldt et al. summarised the themes as: “hear me”, “protect me”, “prepare me”, “support me” and “care for me”.

3. Leading versus Managing: the Need for the Big Picture

Crises require leaders to both lead and manage effectively. But more often than not, leaders tend to focus their efforts on management, rather than leadership, getting lost in the operational details rather than keeping the big picture in mind.  In contrast, leading entails “guiding people to the best possible outcome” over the longterm. In addition to managing the present, the effective leader must also be able to anticipate what comes next and beyond the crisis. The authors of this article talk about pitfalls leaders need to avoid in order to lead others beyond the crisis.

4. Leaders Must Ensure Self Care During a Crisis

 “Rigorous adherence to elementary rules of stress control is essential for leaders in times of crisis.”2   It is the often cited analogy of donning the oxygen mask first before helping others. These basic elements of self care include tending to one’s nutrition, sleep, social connections and  exercise. Dr. Mamta Gautam uses the 5 C’s of resilience framework, namely control, commitment, connections, calming and care in her tips for  “Ensuring our own wellbeing as we care for others during the  COVID 19 Crisis.” 

Great insights and practical concrete tips for maintaining resilience and managing stress during the crisis can also be found in this video featuring  Dr. Jason Brooks, performance psychologist

Summary Paragraph and Conclusion

A crisis, by its very nature, presents both challenges and opportunities. In the aftermath of a crisis, an organization is often forever changed. The challenge and opportunity for leaders are to rise to the occasion in order to make lasting positive and impactful change. It is hoped that these resources will help you lead successfully through the fire and be a part of that change.


1. Kallan, G. Crisis Leadership. 2003: CCL Press; Greensboro, NC available at https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/crisis-leadership-center-for-creative-leadership-guidebook.pdf

2. Boin A, 't Hart P, Stern E, Syndelius B. The Politics of Crisis Management: Political Leadership Under Pressure. 2005: Cambridge University Press; Cambridge UK

Dr. Anne Wong (@annekwong) is Professor and Associate Chair of Education in the Department of Anesthesia and Director of the FHS Academic Leadership Program. She served as the Assistant Dean, Program for Faculty Development at McMaster University for the past seven years. She is a member of the Research Advisory Board at the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society and a past Editorial Board Member at the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.