What you do in a crisis matters. How you do it makes the difference.


THERE IS NO SINGLE FORMULA for how to succeed as a leader during a crisis. After all, each upheaval in life, in business, and in the world—presents unique challenges. But there are some common leadership strategies that have proven vital during crises and to their successful outcome.

The Meaning of Crisis

The word crisis stems from the Greek ‘krisis’ which means the “decisive point in the progress of a disease” and “point at which change must come, for better or worse.” The term was never meant to imply ultimate doom, although that was always a possibility. Rather, it emphasized (1) a turning point at which (2) change must happen—and it is these two aspects that great leaders have always focused on.

For example, as the 2009 financial crisis was unfolding, General Electric’s CEO, Jack Welch, said: “You have to ask the question, what can we do not just to survive but to turn this into a defining point in history?” His statement remains the quintessential question for any person, business, or country going through a crisis. It also addresses the “how” as well as the “what” of crisis leadership.

What to Do versus How to Be

A lot has been written about how to manage a crisis, especially in the business world. Much of the literature revolves around ideas of staying calm and positive, being honest and brave, and exhibiting confidence as a leader. The focus, however, is often on finding ways to manage and fix the “problem” rather than seeing a crisis in terms of inevitable change, the opportunities inherent in change, and the best way to walk through that door instead of trying to shut it.

Crisis as Opportunity

The fact is that a crisis by its very nature brings pressure which causes people to react out of fear rather than with vision—especially a vision of the benefits that lie on the other side of a well navigated crisis. As the origin of the word tells us, crisis is a “point at which change must come,” and great leaders have a talent for embracing crises to harness change, even if they don’t know exactly what form the results will take. The important thing is that change ‘must’ come and is coming, so why not help it be as beneficial as possible?

To quote Matt McWilliams of Matt McWilliams Consulting, Inc., “Great leaders thrive in a crisis” and “provide their team with all the information and resources they need during a crisis.” Mike McKenna, the president of TEAM Solutions, goes a step further by distinguishing between transactional leaders and transformational leaders: “Transactional leaders,” he says, “focus on what’s measured“ (the details of the problem) while “transformational leaders focus on the future condition” (on growth, vision, and strategy).

Vision and Attitude

Extending this idea beyond the realm of business, McWilliams quotes the 20th-century French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Just imagine more people facing the different crises in their lives with this kind of attitude.

It is an attitude that is echoed in the idea of a growth mindset which Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has written about in her book, Mindset. Dweck is well known for her studies of the differences between growth and fixed mindsets and how these differences play out (beneficially and detrimentally) in school, business, athletics, and life. It is a matter of which side of the door you want to be on both during and after a crisis unfolds.


It is very rare or almost impossible that an event can be negative from all points of view.

~ Dalai Lama XIV 


In times of crisis people want to know that you care, more than they care what you know.

~ Will Rogers


Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

~ Albert Einstein


You never have real changes unless you have a time of crisis.

~ Milton Friedman


I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. .

~ Abraham Lincoln


Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.

~ Colin Powell


A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

~ Lao Tzu



  • A crisis is a chance for new doors to open and new opportunities to emerge.

  • Actions and attitudes are equally important to crisis leadership.

  • Crises of all kinds have the potential to build character and transform lives.


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