The 3 key leadership traits for crisis management

CRISIS! What is your next move when a project runs late? When you can’t make a very important meeting? When another company tries to swoop in on the bid you’ve worked on for two months? When things go wrong or problems spring up, the leader is the one everyone looks to for help, guidance, and action. So what do you do when YOU ARE THE LEADER?! What leadership traits should you develop now to prepare?

Leaders are tested and forged during conflict, but it isn’t always obvious what helps a leader get through crises. We’re going to look at the science and history behind the leadership traits needed to manage a crisis. We’re going to discuss 3 examples from history to help you develop the science-backed leadership traits needed for effective crisis management. 

Regardless of whether you agree with their politics, these three leaders provide excellent examples:

  1. Winston Churchill teaches a growth mindset
  2. Frederik Willem de Klerk teaches strategic planning, and 
  3. Jacinda Adern teaches empathy.

We have combed through hundreds of research articles to provide you with science backed steps to develop crisis management leadership traits. Our work relies on reinterpreting traditional and cutting-edge science in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and judgement and decision sciences.

Before we get to our lessons, we’ll first talk a little about what leading through the stress of a crisis looks like on a neuroscientific level.

neuroscience of stress

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The neuroscience of stress

Leading through a crisis can take many forms– finance, personnel management, public image or relations issues, an issue that affects your entire industry at large. Just talking or thinking about some of these things might make you a bit stressed up right now! Regardless of the source, here is what is happening to your body and brain when you are faced with navigating major problems or crises.

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Hormones & neurotransmitters

Our bodies are very complex, hard-working machines with one major goal: maintain balance. The balance, or normal state, that our bodies are trying to constantly maintain is defined by homeostasis. Homeostasis is the principle that a system of energy, like a biosphere, a weather system, or our bodies tries to maintain a constant state where energy is being expended at the same or a similar rate as it is being gained. 

To reach equilibrium, many different internal systems must coordinate. Our bodies use hormones and neurotransmitters to send messages to different parts of our bodies. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals sent to neurons (the building blocks of nerve fibers) that trigger activation of different parts of our body. Hormones work in a similar way but they communicate via your bloodstream


Neurobiology of stress

When you become stressed or are in a stressful situation your neurotransmitters and hormones work together in what is known as the neuroendocrine limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal system, or the LHPA system for short.

When you become stressed, physically or emotionally, your body uses epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitters, and releases cortisol, the major stress hormone. These are what give you the feeling of adrenaline in the body when you experience psychological or physical stress. 

These physiological changes are meant to activate your body to respond quickly. Anthropologically speaking, this system activated in order to help us survive in the wild and unpredictable environment. These all might come in handy when running from a bear in the woods or trying to outswim a shark in the ocean (though you shouldn’t test them!!). In our current society, however, psychological and mental stress are the most common reason the LHPA system activates. 

So if you’re sitting in your office facing a team crisis, how do these changes help you make better decisions? Unfortunately the system that works so well to save you from a bear in the wild doesn’t always fit today’s work environment. It can cause you to make rash decisions and disengage from rational and thoughtful deliberation. In times of crisis, and especially when you’re leading through it, we may have to work against our biology to make the right decisions and successfully navigate our organizations to solid footing.

growth mindset

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Lesson 1: Churchill teaches growth mindset

Winston Churchhill and his unprecedented plan. During World War II, Germany captured over 300,000 British, French, and Belgian forces in northern France. Winston Churchill–Great Britain’s Prime Minister at the time–called it a “colossal military disaster.”

Despite the gutting, Churchill didn’t give up. Churchill exhausted all of his diplomatic and military resources to try and get the soldiers out of enemy territory. He tried to work with his own military and Allies (the United States and Canada) to implement a rescue but was met with staunch opposition at every turn. Every proposal was deemed too costly or too risky.

However, instead of insisting on his first idea or being discouraged, he saw every “no” and every excuse as more information to help him devise a plan that would work. Eventually he broke the mould and tried something unorthodox: the Dunkirk Plan.

Churchill knew that civilian fishing boats were being allowed to cross the channel for personal commerce and fishing, while any military vessel would be seen as hostile and attacked. Churchill organized a series of civilian fishing boats to make contact and transport the stranded troops back to the U.K. under cover of night. Amazingly, it worked! Over 800 small boats worked together to evacuate over 300,000 soldiers. 

Growth mindset and never giving up. Churchill’s actions help teach us how important the growth mindset leadership trait can be. Growth mindset focuses on the possibilities for action and improvement rather than the detrimental status quo or past of a situation.

Some people may think that people are either born with a growth mindset or not, or that a growth mindset isn’t something you can just turn on and off. But a growth mindset is something you, as a leader, need to develop and incorporate into your regular leadership style. Having a growth mindset is the secret leadership trait for turning crisis into opportunity.

Here are a few simple ways to help you start practicing the growth mindset leadership trait, especially in times of crisis

  • Think of the present problem in context of future action.

Thinking about how now affects the future prevents you from ruminating on the present or past problems. Research has shown that ruminating, or constantly thinking about something in a negative way, keeps individuals in states of anxiety and depression. If you keep your thoughts moving between now and how the future can look, it helps you remember that the present problem is only temporary and helps you focus on times when you will solve that issue. 

  • Link ‘hard work’ with ‘growth’

Nothing happens without some type of work being done. There are a lot of cliche sayings that embody this, such as “coal only becomes a diamond through pressure.” They may be cliches, but there is some truth to them.

Think about times when our hard work has led to something positive, even if it’s something small. Remember that a Prime Minister was met with ‘NOs’ dozens of times before he enacted his plan, and Edison failed hundreds of times before developing a working light bulb.

Remember that your hard work always yields new information, data that you didn’t have before. When you work hard, you have an opportunity to grow and are learning how to act better in the future.

  • Reframe crisis as a challenge to be met 

We all know that one person who will do anything for a bet or on a dare. They are, in a way, embodying a type of growth mindset. They see challenges as something that tests them and can make them more impressive. Every crisis can be viewed as a challenge. Even if you face the end of your company or job, remember that you can still make something out of it, but you have to be willing to learn and see change as an opportunity to create. 

The growth mindset leadership trait helps outsmart our biology. Since most of our stress is psychological or mental, reframing challenges and setbacks as opportunities can help you keep your body calm and cool. Remember that how you think about and interpret a situation can determine how you interact and approach it.

strategic planning

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Lesson 2: de Klerk teaches strategic planning

Frederik Willem de Klerk and his strategic, systematic steps to end apartheid. Frederik Willem de Klerk may not be a household name, but how he affected international politics (helping end apartheid) and who he helped (Nelson Mandela) are. 

At the beginning of his political career in South Africa, de Klerk supported apartheid, which maintained white-minority rule in South Africa. But as he rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party, he began to see issues with apartheid.

As an insider he was able to get support from people who might not normally support radical change. He pushed for a new constitution, passed laws legalizing anti-apartheid political groups, allowed mixed race membership in political parties, and carried negotations between anti-apartheid groups and his government.

In 1992, after holding a referendum, in which only white South Africans could vote, apartheid ended. de Klerk and Mandela were awarded the Noble Peace Prize for their roles, and in 1994, the first universal elections elected Mandelaas president with de Klerk as his deputy. de Klerk led his country though radical change by embodying the leadership trait of strategic planning.

Strategic planning under pressure. In crisis, it seems that planning and strategy always go by the wayside, in favor of reactionary moves and the push to “do something–anything”. Again, this is our biology working against us. Our fight or flight, quick reactions are heightened in stressful situations, not our ability to take in information and rationally consider the proper course of action. 

de Klerk demonstrated that this isn’t the best method to deal with massive political change. He took time to think about what was the best for the country, how to get buy-in and minimize violence, and how it would affect the people now and in the long-run

Regardless of what struggles you are facing it is better to have a plan than to throw things and see what sticks. The plan may need to be adapted or changed considerably by the time you’re done implementing it, but having a defined course of action is the best way to remain focused and compare different options. 

Here are some tips to help you exercise the strategic planning leadership trait:

1. Control, don’t stifle, your emotions

  • Emotions are an important part of how we think and make decisions. While being too emotional can prevent good decisions, it is not uncommon that being too dispassitionaly rational can lead to negative consequences as well. Emotions help us make moral decisions and might provide us a hint that we’re doing something right or wrong, but we have to consider how and what these emotional reactions are triggered by.
  • Planning forces you to slow down and think through situations and consequences. Having a plan, even a rough one helps give you the feeling that you are on track and have a target. This is one of the best ways to reduce stress when you’re in crisis mode.
  • We’ve talked more in-depth about how you can boost your decision making skills by controlling your emotions here.

2. Data, data, data – make informed decisions

  • In the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film, the titular character says “Data, data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay!” This should be your approach to any form of planning. Anyone can make a plan, but a true leader develops that plan strategically. What does that mean? Well, it starts with you taking in information and considering different perspectives, even those you disagree with.Information processing is one of the most important factors that determines good and bad decisions.

3. Engage in prototyping and revision

  • Prototyping is a method of learning and problem solving where you create a template and constantly revise it. One great way to demonstrate this is through the team-building exercise, the spaghetti-marshmallow tower challenge. The basic challenge is to constantly make changes to a spaghetti tower so that it can support a marshmallow on top. This type of decision making strategy is best when making decisions in uncertainty.
  • Setting a plan and being okay with changing it is an important skill. It also teaches you to view a situation with an eye for finding multiple solutions or possibilities for action.
empathy and leadership

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Lesson 3: Adern teaches empathy

Jacinda Adern’s communication and change in response to terrorism and a pandemic. Our last lesson comes from a contemporary leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Adern of New Zealand, who teaches us about the valuable leadership trait of empathy. Adern’s premiership has faced two major crises: the Christchurch mosque shooting and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In March of 2019, 100 people were fatally shot or injured in two mosques in Christchurch. Much like any head of state does when there is a tragedy, Adern announced mourning and visited the site of catastrophe. However, Adern did not stop there. After meeting with first responders and families of victims, she pushed for clear policy changes aimed at addressing violence. Less than a month after the attack, parliment passed legialstion to increase restrictions on firearms and punishment for terrorism in New Zealand. 

At the end of 2019 and into 2020 (and possibly beyond), the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world. Every head of state reacted differently, but PM Adern has, thus far, been heralded as having one of the most successful responses in an effort to prevent virus spread in their nation.

The Washington Post headlined an article discussing Adern’s response called, “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it.” Adern’s approach was to constantly update New Zealanders and adapt to scientific evidence. She engaged with the people she lead in multiple forms: press conferences, recorded videos, and live Q&A’s on social media. 

Empathy in crisis management. Since the very beginning of her time in office, Adern has branded herself as approachable, communicative, and concerned about the day-to-day lives of the people she represents. She has incorporated the key leadership trait of empathy into her crisis management policies. 

Empathy has become one of the most talked about skills in contemporary psychology literature, but what does ‘empathy’ really mean? Empathy, generally speaking, is the ability to take another person’s perspective and consider something from the point of view of their life experiences and beliefs.

Empathetic leadership takes this a step further in that it emphasizes the ability of a leader to do this with opponent leaders and followers alike. This leadership trait helps you understand how your decisions and actions will affect others, how to motivate and influence others, and how to strengthen your decisions. 

Here are some key steps to incorporating empathic leadership into your bag of leadership traits:

1. Pay attention

2. Be responsive and responsible

  • This is similar to information gathering when strategy planning. You want to be sure that you are taking in all information, but also that you are scrutinizing your plan from an opposing point of view. You want to be sure you are challenging your assumptions to ensure that you are creating a crisis management plan that is responsive to the situation and providing a responsible solution.

3. Ensure follow-through

  • One of the easiest ways to lose the trust of the people you’re leading is to not follow through or appear incompetent. Especially in a crisis, you want to ensure that you are able to connect with the people that follow you and make sure they still see you as capable and reliable. You can do this by setting up incremental goals and check-ins. Adern did this with her Q&A sessions as well as her daily addresses. The more you communicate with your followers, the better you are able to reduce their stress and build their trust in you.
  • Beware that some major problems may persist even after an effective first response. For instance, New Zealand may experience other hate crimes or another spike in COVID cases before the pandemic ends. Thus leaders must continue to pay attention and respond to problems to effectively keep them controlled over the long-term.
key leadership traits

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From history to science: 3 key leadership traits for crisis management

Crisis can come in many forms and provide countless challenges. We do everything we can to avoid these issues, yet sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis nonetheless. The biggest problem is, we focus so much on avoiding it, we don’t always prepare for dealing with it! 

While determining what leadership traits are important for crisis management may differ on a case to case basis, we’ve talked about three key leadership traits for someone trying to respond and react to difficult situations. Looking at different historical leaders, we can learn about these leadership traits. 

  1. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill teaches us to develop a growth mindset. His Dunkirk plan demonstrates how seeing problems not as roadblocks but as obstacles to overcome can help us control our emotions and focus on solutions rather than become bogged down in anxious rumination on the problem.
  2. South Africa’s last State President Frederik Willem de Klerk teaches us about strategic planning when managing a crisis or ushering in radical change. His adept statecraft has shown how gathering information and constantly adapting your plan can help you guide people out of turmoil and struggle. Even if everyone doesn’t agree with you, strategically planning your crisis management actions can help you bring about change that no one thought was possible.
  3. New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister Jacinda Adern teaches us about the importance of the empathic leadership trait. Adern’s response to a terrorist attack and a pandemic demonstrate her commitment to governance by the people. Her attentive, responsible, and reliable leadership style keeps her people informed and gains their trust on a daily basis. 

These three leadership traits are critical for any leader to develop, but especially when it comes to leading through a crisis. We hope to never have to be in a crisis situation, but problems are inevitable. Being prepared and figuring out ways to lead through a crisis is the only answer. Our three science and history backed tips can put you and your organization in a place to succeed.