Vivian Marinelli, Psy.D., FEI Senior Director Crisis Management Services

Leadership during a crisis can easily turn into leadership in crisis without proper planning.

During a crisis, leadership will need the ability to adapt their approach to a quickly evolving situation while taking into consideration the organization’s operations and various stakeholders. In addition, leadership will be looked to for reassurance from both within the organization and the community at large that the situation will be stabilized.

You might think this is a lot to ask of one person, and you would be correct! One individual would be unable to manage a crisis that is impacting an organization, and possibly a community, by themselves. They need a team consisting of individuals with various capabilities, competencies and capacities who are all working towards a single purpose.

To act in the short-term, to unify this effort and think long-term to successfully resolve the situation, a leader and their team requires substantial planning and training in order to coordinate the chaos that results during a crisis.


To avoid becoming leadership in crisis, you must understand that each crisis will be different (even if they have some similarities). As a result, planning needs to take an “all hazards” approach that can be implemented as required by any situation. This should begin with a risk assessment for your organization, in which you identify the potential threats that could give rise to a crisis.

In conjunction with the risk assessment, you should develop your crisis response plan and team. The plan should be operational and include checklists for each of the various units that will make up the team. Team members should represent the critical roles necessary to support responses to the possible crises that could impact your organization.

Most teams organize themselves similarly to the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS integrates a combination of personnel, procedures, equipment, resources and communication lines within a common organizational structure. This system provides the structure for team responsibilities and communication which will hopefully result in a coordinated, successful response.


During a crisis, a leader provides the strategy and decision-making necessary to resolve the situation. Strong leaders understand that they may not have 100 percent of the information when a decision needs to be made. However, they can see the “big picture” of the crisis, consider their options and risks, and make necessary decisions even when the outcome might not be completely known.

Initially, possibly the most important action a leader can take is to own the solution. This doesn’t mean they are taking blame for the crisis; rather, taking ownership of the solution allows the leader to make decisions using the information that is known in conjunction with their experience. Regardless, every crisis will be different than the last one encountered.


As indicated earlier, the organization and the community alike will look to leadership for assurance that the crisis will be resolved. Along with strategizing and making decisions to stabilize the situation, a leader also will need to communicate updates on the response to their various stakeholders. Communication is critical during a crisis, as it helps re-establish trust in the organization. A leader that can communicate in a calm, positive, yet realistic manner will help mitigate any escalating fears or concerns others may have.

By communicating compassionately and providing as much information as possible about the decisions being made throughout a crisis, a leader helps rebuild trust in the organization and avoids being identified as “leadership in crisis.”