Research Articles

Crisis Management vs. Leadership

Crisis Management vs. Leadership applies to natural disaster, global crisis, and geopolitical events, and is even more critical in escalating times. This scale and trajectory are magnified by social media, data dissemination, and headline consumption. Because of “access,” we also have to embrace the concept that wider emotional impacts are inherent to this model. Thus, more than ever, the notion of crisis leadership is critical in negotiating and influencing the positive outcome of any given crisis.

Understanding the Criteria to Define a Crisis in Business

Crisis Management (CM) vs. Crisis Leadership (CL) needs to be an open conversation in organizations and more importantly recognized as being different when we think about talent development. In times of great stress, our Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is tested, regardless of the genesis of a crisis. So, why is it important to differentiate between the way we deal with them as leaders? The answer is clear and has been played out in many case studies over the last two decades.

“Emotional inertia” (EI), tends to detract from the centric messaging that remains critical to CM, thus the divergence from CL. The “experts” are still present, yet the variables mentioned above become diluted in the bigger picture and emotions on the outer fray tend to gain inertia/validation.

This brings me to the point. CM depends on structure, contingency, and execution of an established plan. Organizations have done an extraordinary job in the last two decades to ensure we are more prepared than ever before, to both, respond and proactively mitigate risk when it comes to crisis.

Controlling the Variables of Crisis in Business

However, due to many underlying variables such as cultural diversity, distributed work, and all of the items I have mentioned above, we must also focus on CL as a core element of crisis response. In short, there is a heavier emphasis on enterprise wide “behaviors” in the CL realm. As you consider the “skills family” that needs to be aligned to those who may respond to crisis (everyone in your organization), consider the following:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Strategic Thinking/Planning
  • Executive Presence/Impact Awareness
  • Risk Management/Mitigation
  • High Performance Problem Solving (HPPS)
  • Data/analytics – management, stratification, presentation, planning
  • Action Planning/Execution
  • Measurement/Agile Change Management


  • Emotional Intelligence – A well-known term and leadership expectation with a centric purpose in both CM and CL. The essence of EQ must be propagated wider and deeper in organizations to ensure that even staff and frontline personnel have the capacity to maintain the corporate “tone” throughout the crisis.
    • CL/ACTION – Provide wider access to EQ training and then have “all” leaders model behavior that promotes the corporate purpose in all situations.
  • Strategic Thinking/Planning – Ensure that your leaders promote innovation, open idea generation, and have the flexibility to become part of the solution. This cultural norm must be built and reinforced in all times, not just crisis. In fact, it must be proactive to build the trust that will be needed during times of stress. Having the ability to generate action plans from the “thinking” is also critical and is the only way forward motion will be generated with the velocity needed to overcome crisis.
    • CL/ACTION – Build Respect, Empathy, Sincerity, and Trust (REST), in the organization by modeling and sharing the skills needed to both think and plan strategically while in a crisis response mode.
  • Executive Presence/Impact Awareness – Ensure that your leaders bring confidence and presence with all communications. However, they must be skilled to embed REST within all interactions in order to create an enhanced culture of compassion with action orientation. Leaders must also be insightful enough to recognize how their actions/behaviors will manifest in others reality. Self-awareness is critical to help others dispel “fear” and replace that emotion with logical responses and actions.
    • CL/ACTION – Allow your leaders to reflect daily, and to measure through the lens of others, how they are impacting their reality. This can be accomplished with a structured best practice and then transferred to a CL norm.
  • Risk Management/Mitigation – Risk Management is already in the realm of CM, yet sometimes not considered in CL. Reactionary behavior when there is a crisis plan in place can sometimes work to mitigate the challenge at hand, because those processes are designed for blind execution. However, if the behaviors associated with CL are not in place, there will be a higher risk of missteps, and most likely lower levels of sustainability in the resolve.
    • CL/ACTION – Prepare risk plans and play out the execution via structured scenarios. This form of risk modeling and scenario-based learning is common in CM training and with the addition of CL being introduced can create a 360-degree response plan with sustainability that far outweighs one that is just focused on CM.
  • High Performance Problem Solving (HPPS) – Problem solving is part of both CM and CL already. However, much like Risk Management above, the weight to CL can greatly increase the performance of the resolve. HPPS, differs in structure by embracing an agile method and toolbox to ensure it promotes cross cultural/location inclusion, as well as the capability to respond through the deductive process.
    • CL/ACTION – Revisit your problem-solving toolbox and ensure that the “process” aligns to how you do business, that the outcomes are actionable and can be executed quickly.
  • Data/analytics – management, stratification, presentation, planning – Any modern organization can pull data to leverage in all decisions, crisis orientation or otherwise. With that said, how do we know if we are using the right data?
    • CL/ACTION – Perform a data validation to ensure that your decision makers have quick access to the data that aligns to the organizations purpose. Create clarity and vision within all data and ensure there are tools and systems available to assist teams with action.
  • Action Planning/Execution – Taking data, knowledge, and information gained from the above steps is one shared part of CM and CL.  However, in a mature CL program, we have a better sense of how to mobilize the outcomes in a rapid way.
    • CL/ACTION – Provide your teams with training to understand the lifecycle of best practice Planning, Scheduling, Implementing, and Controlling Execution plans.
  • Measurement/Agile Change Management – CM tends to lean heavily on structure and rigid response plans. This is a necessity to avoid chaos. However, the introduction of CL will extend the aspects of controlled change by offering more context and a calm guiding hand. This outcome should be obvious in the actions above and again, it is the hardest part of the resolve.
    • CL/ACTION – Challenge your teams to build models of the actions associated with CM, roll those models into a simulated application and determine how and where “options” may reside. Using all the skills mentioned above, create contingency and options that live in the agile CM/CL environment.
  • Mature CM/CL Drive High Performing Teams – Research has well established that in non-crisis environments there are unique aspects of management and leadership that drive high performing teams. Such high performance is much more critical in a crisis situation. The key aspects of CL described above, when undergirded with strong CM, can be directly mapped to the qualities of High Performing Teams (change oriented, innovative behavior, self-directed, etc.).
    • CL/ACTION – Promote a deep understanding of the considerable impact potential of High Performing Teams. Provide opportunities for training, role playing and leadership development exercises that demonstrate the connection of effective CM/CL with the empirical qualities of High Performing Teams.

In closing. This is not about taking emphasis off CM; it is needed and critical in all organizations. The takeaway actions as noted above, are meant to compliment and thus enhance the way our leaders execute in crisis.

Written by Phil Ventresca, M.B.A.