Leadership During Crisis
Navigating Complexity and Uncertainty
On the evening of October 8, 2017, more than a dozen fires broke out in Northern California and spread rapidly, fueled by dry conditions and powerful diablo winds. Becoming what is known as a conflagration, many of these fires traveled as fast as 200 feet per second—jumping major highways and devastating communities like Coffey Park in Santa Rosa.
Because these fires emerged overnight and quickly destroyed communications infrastructure, first responders and community members canvassed door‐to‐door on foot, warning threatened neighborhoods to evacuate.
Over the ensuing days, emergency management officials battled what became some of the most destructive fires in California’s history, and many unofficial leaders emerged to help their communities cope with the damage.
Crises like the Northern California fires create both challenge and opportunity for leaders. They introduce significant uncertainty and yet require leaders to make decisions with profound consequences.
During a period of time where fundamental—and potentially undesirable—change is possible, crises require leaders to demonstrate confidence when they may feel the most vulnerable and maintain vision for others when their own line of sight is obscured.
Often, when we reflect on the response to a natural disaster or a corporate crisis, we observe that leadership fundamentally influenced outcomes—that is, whether communities and organizations were able to withstand the shock or stress upon them and whether or not they were able to recover, or even benefit, from that disruption.
The U.S. House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee report on Hurricane Katrina found exactly this: “If 9/11 was a failure of imagination, then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership.”
Given the challenges crises present for leaders, the Center for Disaster Management and the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum—of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA)—have collaborated over the past year to understand common behaviors among those who effectively lead through such conditions.
This collaboration includes a podcast series, “Leadership During Crisis,” featuring seasoned emergency managers, public leaders, and individuals who took spontaneous and unplanned action to lead. We have considered diverse types of crises—from fires to mass shootings—and in local to global contexts.
Ultimately, we have observed common behaviors across three dimensions—how leaders assume and demonstrate responsibility in a crisis, how they make decisions and collaborate with others in uncertainty, and how they cope with substantial stress.
Each of these dimensions is explored below and in the accompanying sidebar through anecdotes from our podcast interviews, as well as other cases of effective leadership in crisis.
Assumption and Demonstration of Responsibility
Scholars and practitioners increasingly accept the idea that leadership is the ability to influence and facilitate others towards common goals, not merely a function of holding an official position. Regarding leading in crisis, this evolution has two important implications.
First, it challenges the notion that a crisis can be managed through command‐and‐control strategies alone—an argument that others have made regarding emergency management and homeland security specifically.
For example, Jack Anderson, a senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, argues that modern approaches to dealing with risk suffer from a “fortress problem,” wherein we attempt to know and control more than is possible.
Our communities and the social, economic, and technology systems we depend upon are increasingly complex. Crisis represents a disruption to these complex systems, and the impacts of a crisis are not likely to be linear—meaning that we cannot fully predict or control how the crisis will unfold or how elements of these systems will react.
Second, this evolution challenges our traditional understanding of who leads during crisis. A common phenomenon following major disasters is the observance of emergent behavior—represented by individuals or organizations that take on new or adapted roles in response to needs presented by the crisis.
We saw this repeatedly during last year’s torrent of natural disasters: residents in Puerto Rico building a pulley system for food and water after the bridge connecting their village was destroyed; bystanders and neighbors in Mexico City organizing themselves to save people trapped in the rubble of a massive earthquake; and wine country leaders turning their resources and network to focus on disaster response and recovery needs north of San Francisco.
Leadership in crisis, therefore, takes both official and emergent forms—but we can still observe common behaviors among such individuals in how they assume and demonstrate responsibility for leading their communities.