What skills are most critical for leading through a crisis?

On April 17, 2017, Southwest flight 1380 from New York to Dallas was in serious danger. A failed fan blade had struck the plane, creating a window-sized hole on the left side of the plane. Oxygen masks were deployed and, the passengers began to panic. Captain Tammie Jo Shults remained calm, took command of the situation, adapted to the circumstances, and safely landed the plane in Philadelphia, saving hundreds of lives.

There are many examples of extraordinary leaders rising to the occasion in crisis situations. Because many organizations are currently facing the crisis caused by COVID-19, we thought it would be a good time to review what we know about organizational crisis and what makes a leader most effective during such times.

Crisis Is Common

Every organization will face a crisis at some point. Whether an organization succeeds through a crisis is dependent upon its leader’s actions. Effective leaders must make good decisions quickly, often based on limited information. They must serve as a rallying force that keeps employees on track. Organizations with the best leaders are the ones that come out on top when the crisis subsides. The question then is this: What personality characteristics are most critical for leading through a crisis?

Leading Through a Crisis

First, Hogan Assessment’s research shows that an effective leader in a crisis acts like Tammie Jo Shults: She remains calm, takes charge, and confidently makes critical decisions. The two personality traits associated with acting this way are adjustment and ambition.

In a crisis, people look to their leader for guidance on how to respond.

If the leader is panicked and lacks confidence about the actions to take, people will start to panic and chaos will ensue. Well-adjusted and ambitious leaders quickly adapt to unexpected changes caused by the crisis, such as the sudden shift to remote work many are experiencing, and they communicate with people about how to proceed.

Second, every crisis comes with increased stress. Even if the leader doesn’t display it externally, he or she is feeling the pressure. Research shows that when people are under stress, they can lose their normal mode of operating and begin to derail. When faced with a crisis, people derail in three major ways: (1) moving away — by running from the problem, (2) moving against — by combating those thought to cause the problem, and (3) moving toward — by getting as close to the problem as possible and trying to micromanage it away.

(1) moving away
(2) moving against
(3) moving toward

None of these are very effective, but our research shows that the worst thing to do when leading through a crisis is to move away and avoid the problem. Common tactics in this category include denying that there is a problem, pretending that the problem is overblown, or giving up on the problem entirely. We find that leaders who are effective during crises face stressful challenges head on. They are honest with themselves and others about the size of the problem and put mitigating actions into place as soon as possible.

Third, our research also shows that the most effective crisis leaders show compassion and work to stay connected with the needs of their employees, customers, communities, and partners. While an ambitious and steady leader reduces panic and sets out a future plan, employees must also continue to feel valued by the organization and that their concerns are being addressed.

The leader should serve as a unifying force, encouraging connectedness.

Our research indicates effective crisis leaders score high on the personality trait interpersonal sensitivity and they value altruism and affiliation. Effective leaders also need to be comfortable with change, risks and ambiguity. They shouldn’t be afraid of changing circumstances and they need to take smart risks. Therefore, low scores on security are considered a plus.

Leading through a crisis – the takeaways

Crisis is inevitable, and organizations are well advised to be prepared. The single best way to be prepared for a crisis is to have a leader who is effective at handling crises when they occur. Our decades of research on personality and leadership tell us that the most effective leaders during a crisis are well adjusted, ambitious, realistic about the scope of the problem, steadfast about tackling the problem head on, and deeply compassionate about how the crisis is affecting others. Although it can be difficult to see in the midst of a crisis, organizations with these sorts of leaders have bright futures ahead.

If you ask, what are the take-outs for leaders who already are in a position of managing a crisis – they should be aware of how their emotions impact their teams – if they manage to stay calm and optimistic, other people will remain composed and steady. They surely should not to underestimate the impact and scale of the crisis. Facing tough situations is difficult, but if they will be able to keep going, they have a solid chance that once the crisis is over, they will leave it stronger and hardened. Final tip would be not to forget about the people and their fears and concerns. Yes, effective leader needs to be decisive and goal oriented, but it’s not the right time to play the forceful boss. Put a priority in your people well-being, listen to their issues and be available for help. Creating a sense of cooperation and community is the effective way of keeping people productive and going through the crisis.

* Original post was authored by Hogan’s Chase Borden, Kimberly Nei, and Ryne Sherman;
adapted by Jaroslava Turkova, Hogan Product Manager, Assessment Systems

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