Crisis Management Team Leadership Success: A Combination of Natural Abilities and Learned Skills

Your organization has spent considerable resources preparing for disruptive events, and now a crisis is looming. Plans are in place, detailing assigned roles and responsibilities that involve crisis leadership, as well as response and recovery procedural execution. But, will your Crisis Management Team Leader be effective? Will your response be successful? Often, one of the most significant key success factors is the choice of crisis leadership.

The best crisis leaders have a unique combination of natural abilities and learned skills that make them effective. The purpose of this article is to summarize the skills that Avalution’s team identified (and witnessed over the course of many crises) as being keys to success in hopes that each remains top of mind when selecting and developing the crisis leaders in any organization.

Choosing a Leader
The individual chosen to lead an organization’s Crisis Management Team (CMT), the group charged with leading the response to a disruptive event, is a key determining factor of its success or failure. Selecting an individual best-suited for a crisis leadership role should be based on leadership ability and the traits necessary to lead in an overly stressful and often ambiguous situation. Job title should never be the singular driver when making a decision as to who is best-suited to lead a Crisis Management Team, but this person must be a well-respected member of the senior leadership team that has the necessary power and influence to commit the organization to a course of action.

Before we dive into the details of the natural and learned traits that make a CMT Leader successful, we have a few high-level points to keep in mind before embarking on the selection process:

  1. Involve your business continuity steering committee (or a similar governance body) in the CMT Leader selection process. Present a job description that highlights the role and key success criteria, and then identify candidates – primaries and alternates – that could successfully carry out the role.
  2. Culture is key. Each organization makes decisions in different ways. Choose a leader that complements the organization’s decision-making culture and can help streamline this process when time is of the essence.
  3. Leading and managing the response to a disruptive event is not one person’s job, it’s a team effort. The CMT Leader cannot perform all the tasks necessary for an effective response—the leader’s role is to set objectives, communicate goals and eliminate roadblocks that impede the team’s progress throughout the response to the disruptive event. As such, ensure that the chosen CMT Leader is surrounded and supported by a team of cross-functional, knowledgeable representatives from throughout the organization.

So, what does it take to be an effective CMT leader?

Natural Characteristics
Just because an individual displays great leadership skills during times characterized as “business as usual”, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same will be true in a crisis situation. In our experience, the following behavioral, or natural, characteristics described below are found in the most effective Crisis Management Team Leaders:

  • Persuasion – An effective crisis leader must inspire people to follow them – not demand it. This may sound simplistic, but a true CMT Leader must have the innate ability to calm, motivate and empower team members during the response to a disruptive event. It is imperative the leader maintain the skills and expertise essential to establishing authority. The leader must instill confidence and connect emotionally and intellectually with both executive leadership and other Crisis Management Team members.
  • Guts – Not all leaders are able to quickly and confidently make decisions in crisis situations with incomplete information at hand, but that tends to become the norm when responding to a disruptive event. Famed American author Ernest Hemingway provides the simplest and best explanation of the characterization of guts, defining it as “grace under pressure.” Skill can be taught, but the ability to keep a level head in a very tense situation, quickly make decisions, and lead a team (and organization) through a disruptive event is an intrinsic gift (one not easily taught).
  • Balance – Many organizations value collaboration as a key part of day-to-day decision making (and rightly so), but in a crisis situation, there often comes a time where a decision needs to be made immediately, even if the facts seem incomplete and obfuscated. There is an intangible ability a crisis leader must have—to know when it’s time to stop the discussion and start making a decision that commits the organization to act.

Learned Skills
Although many other traits enable effective, day-to-day organizational leadership (most of which also apply to crisis leadership), senior leaders with the following three principles – when combined with the natural, behavioral abilities described above – are often exceptional Crisis Management Team Leader candidates.

  • Communication – It is no secret that well-executed communication strategies are integral to an effective crisis response. However, communication as a Crisis Management Team Leader is more granular than the organization’s overall communication strategy. A crisis leader must combine their natural abilities to inspire and empower with clear, direct communication. A Crisis Management Team Leader must deftly and transparently communicate goals and objectives with executive leadership and Crisis Management Team members throughout an organization’s response to a disruptive event.
  • Purpose – A Crisis Management Team Leader must provide clear direction in organizing and maintaining the response effort. In addition, the leader needs to easily adapt to changing and often volatile situations without losing focus of the overall strategic goals for the Crisis Management Team and, ultimately, the organization. Following proven response strategies detailed within the organization’s plan documentation, the leader will be able to successfully meet the goals and objectives of the organization.
  • Business Continuity Comfort, Knowledge and Participation – It is essential for the guiding force of the response and recovery process to have an intimate knowledge of the organization’s business continuity objectives and purpose. A crisis leader must be actively involved in the planning and continual improvement process. Additionally, the Crisis Management Team Leader must grow and evolve with the program through participation in testing and exercising the program.

In Conclusion
Selecting the most appropriate Crisis Management Team Leader is an important task that requires careful thought and examination. The most effective crisis leaders have a unique blend of objective-oriented and task-oriented professional traits, and will deftly oversee the “big picture” while seeking out tasks on the critical path to success. They demonstrate the right touch in dealing with unpredictability in people and situations. They provide clear direction over the situation and are able to identify and empower others within the team and organization that have a capacity for adapting behavior to changing situations. Effective CMT Leaders will not have all the answers—in fact, they shouldn’t.  Through effective communication, persuasiveness, and a driven purpose, the Crisis Management Team Leader should inspire the team to go find the answers and come to the best decisions to execute the most appropriate actions for the benefit of the organization.

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Ross Ladley, Consultant
Avalution Consulting: Business Continuity Consulting


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