The Making of a “C.R.I.S.I.S.” Leader


Looking back at the major global events of 2023, plenty of developments captured people’s attention worldwide – while others received minimal scrutiny. Vulnerable populations grappled with lethal conflicts, from Russia and Ukraine to Gaza and Israel, alongside record-breaking heat conditions, drought, wildfires, and flooding. Societal discontent was palpable in many countries, with news cycles dominated by polarization, violent protests, riots, and strikes.

As the world becomes more complex and connected, the threat of a corporate crisis grows. There are instances everywhere: We have experienced firsthand how a pandemic when spread worldwide, caused massive global business disruption and a public health disaster; a corruption scandal causes a corporate leader to step down; the sudden death of a CEO without succession planning in place causes instability; a data breach shakes customer confidence; and quality issues trigger a widespread product recall. ¬These are just a few examples among many of the recent corporate crises.

A crisis can be defined as a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. It can be caused by a range of factors, from natural disasters to financial downturns, and can impact individuals, organizations, and even entire countries. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of a crisis that has affected the world on an unprecedented scale.

Today’s businesses face unprecedented challenges operating in a global environment that is highly disruptive and increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). The current hyper-VUCA threat environment demands a more cohesive support structure for crisis leaders who may be faced with crises of increasing magnitude and frequency and, in some instances, multiple crisis events simultaneously.

Lessons From the Frontlines on Past Crises

The level of disruption that leaders are facing in recent years is unprecedented. The complexity and scale of the disruptive challenges they are navigating have left many leaders feeling overwhelmed. However, research by the Disruptive Leadership Institute (DLI) involving C-suite leaders (CEOs and direct reports to CEOs) has unveiled that not all leaders are struggling. Some do thrive in times of crisis and chaos in past events such as the September 11 attacks, the Asian Financial Crisis, the Dotcom Bubble, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and of course the COVID-19 Pandemic ¬(See Figure 1).

These leaders who are thriving are not doing so by chance. ¬They are proactively demonstrating specific leadership practices and skills resulting in success for their respective teams and organizations, which will be discussed in depth in the book.

Figure 1: Selected Past Crises with Significant Impact on Businesses

Potential Future Disruptive Events Leading to Crises

Disruption has significantly impacted the way the world works, as many of us have experienced today and in recent years. Apart from businesses, government, and individuals are also responding to shifts that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago.

The current wave of disruption, including the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the known forces of Industry 4.0 (such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics), globalization, geopolitical tensions, and demographic change, are reinventing the workforce.

Internet technologies have enabled drones and driverless cars, which are transforming supply chains, logistics, health care, and even defense and security, such as the war against terrorism. Organizations face challenges that present varying levels of severity. But handled poorly, even a seemingly minor shock has the potential to escalate into a crisis that threatens the viability of a business. A crisis and disruptive events can disrupt operations, damage reputations, destroy shareholder value, and trigger other threats.

Geopolitical tensions, supply chain bottlenecks, technological innovations, climate change, future pandemics such as the Avian or Bird Flu and economic headwinds such as soaring inflation, rising interest rates, decelerating economic growth, and currency fluctuations have created a complex, once-in-a-generation, competitive environment with significant variations across geographic areas and sectors (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Potential Mega Disruptive Events Leading to Global Crises

Crisis Leadership

However, there is likely no situation where leadership is more important than during a time of crisis. Crises put incredible strains on organizations and call for quick and decisive action. Perhaps because crises are typically conceived as sudden and unexpected events, and because many crises are quickly resolved, leadership research has paid relatively little attention to crisis leadership. For the most part, crises have been viewed from a management perspective, which advocates anticipating and preparing for different crisis scenarios, and the creation of response teams that will be activated in the event of a certain crisis. But it is impossible to anticipate and prepare for all crises. Like any organizational error, crises can be neither predicted with absolute accuracy nor eradicated. Unforeseen, unknowable, and truly novel crises require a distinctive leadership response that often includes being flexible and adaptable, making good decisions quickly, and mustering resources on short notice.

Effective crisis leadership is crucial for the survival of organizations during times of crisis. Clear communication, decisiveness, empathy, adaptability, team-building, maintaining a long-term perspective, accountability, resilience, learning from mistakes, and inspiring hope are all essential qualities of successful crisis managers. Leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Arne Sorensen, Jeff Bezos, Angela Merkel, and Rudolph (Rudy) Giuliani have exemplified these qualities in their respective fields. By studying and applying these principles, current and future leaders can confidently navigate crises and lead their organizations toward brighter days.

When a crisis disrupts the usual order of things, leaders can’t settle for just dealing with what’s in front of them today. They need to immediately begin looking ahead and planning to make sure they’re prepared for what comes next—even if they have no idea what shape it will take.
The “C.R.I.S.I.S.” Leadership Model (see Figure 3) offers a summary of the contemporary research-based leadership practices that are linked with successful crisis response. Each skill, trait, and perspective is a useful tool for leading during a crisis. But they are even more effective when integrated into a single crisis leadership strategy.

Figure 3: The “C.R.I.S.I.S.” Leadership Model


We live in a constant era of disruption in which powerful global forces (mega disruptive trends) are changing how we live and work. ¬e new world order is leading to growing challenges to globalization, geopolitical tensions, the rapid spread of new disruptive innovation, shifts in demographic forces, and the challenge of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emission. ¬These trends offer considerable new opportunities to companies, sectors, countries, and individuals that embrace them successfully. They are bringing forth dynamic and innovative new players on the world stage and could give a much-needed boost to productivity and prosperity in many countries.

Organizations face significant challenges during a crisis that can threaten their existence. In these moments, leaders need to be able to make tough decisions quickly and decisively, while also inspiring and motivating their teams. Effective leaders can see the bigger picture, anticipate challenges, and make the necessary adjustments to steer their organizations through the storm.