Leading through crisis

The penultimate element of General Zinni’s newly molded Leadership Model which are the core elements modern leaders need if they are going to create a culture of leadership and be successful in today’s challenging world is leading in time of CRISIS: “The new leader must be able to lead in times of crisis and change.

Today, organisations are exposed to more crises – generating events and dynamic shifts of ever greater severity than ever before. A leader’s ability to calmly steer a course through those confused seas has become critical to survival of any enterprise.”

Crises hit, that is, unexpected events that seriously damage the functions or operations of an organisations or a community, or threaten its very existence. You can depend on it.

The military constantly talks about the “fog and friction” of war – the unpredictable elements than can make the best plans irrelevant or turn victory into potential debate.

Change, like crisis, is inevitable if you lead any organisation for any amount of time, you will lead it through change.

To adapt to an increasingly complicated and changing environment, organisations have to grow, expand, alter, streamline, merge, or divest.

The impact of change can be as difficult to manage as the impact of crisis. “Nothing tests the true character of leader like leading through change.”


Every organisation – whether religious, military, business, nonprofit, or government – will inevitably face a crisis that will test its capacity to steer a safe course through stormy times.

Human nature, the nature of the enterprise, the environment, culture, politics, bad luck, or any number of causes will generate crisis. Crises don’t accommodate our desires and plans. That is part of what makes them crises.

When bad things happen, leaders cannot simply curse bad luck, injustice, or their own actions, they must act to correct the problem or failing that, to weather it and recover from it.

If the leaders have built a strong institution on a credible ethical base if their subordinates trust leadership, they have established the foundation they need for guiding their enterprise successfully through the crisis.

Points of Vulnerability

In every business, we must watch over points of vulnerability. These are critical whose failure can hurt us; hinge elements that are necessary to our business. Obvious examples of hinge elements are the cost of fuel and transport or of necessary components of our products.

We certainly cannot predict where, when, and how a crisis might hit, but we may be able to mitigate against its effects.

We can certainly take a hard look at the internal and external factors that could make us vulnerable to a potential crisis.

If  we cannot them, we may at least be able to reduce our vulnerability and measure the risk and exposure they threaten.


Getting Through It


What qualities mark leaders who successfully guide their enterprises through crises? Gen Zinni has worked with a number of organisations that struggled through deeply traumatic events.

From these expectations he believes certain actions of leaders who get through the crisis best stand out. First, we should recognize and accept the reality of the business for what it is. Don’t beat yourself dead about the severity of the situation, and don’t try to sugarcoat it to members of organization or to outside world.

By the same token, don’t be a “cry baby.” Is the sky really falling? Make a true and honest appraisal about what you face and what the facts and impacts are.

Second, let it all come out; don’t be in denial. Bad news doesn’t get any better with age.

The faster, more honest you get the true story out, the better chance you have of dispelling rumors and creating a positive initial impression with your honesty and transparency.

Then move quickly and decisively. You people are traumatised, worried, confused, embarrassed, and emotionally drained.

The outside world, including your stakeholders, is barking at your heels. What they want to see is leadership, someone in change.

Third, be sympathetic with subordinates and their plight but do not commiserate with them. It is too easy for everyone to start feeling sorry for themselves and to give in to their darkest fears.

Feel for what they are going through, but convince them to believe them to believe that they control their own fate and have to confront and deal with the problem as a team.

See the situation as a challenge, and look for opportunities that might derive from it. Promise yourself and your team that you can come out of this a better organization. Promise the stakeholders that you can learn from the crisis and gain experience.

Finally, lead from the front by being visible and in charge. Don’t cocoon yourself away. This is the most important time to be out and about.

The captain needs to be on the deck when the battle is being fought.

Create as positive an environment as you can. Keep spirits up. Look to ensure that everyone knows they will get through this. Most importantly, “lead through your intellect, not your emotions; stay even-keeled emotionally and base all your decisions on reason, not feelings.”




Crises are not the only generators of chaotic or stressful situations; and they are not the only events that can test the strength of an institution and its leadership.

Often severe change is enough to create the same problems. Invariably, change will follow a crisis and compound its impact.

Few people like change, especially older members of an organization. We are creatures of habit. We like stability and predictability. Yet today some organisations accept change, live comfortably with it, or even thrive on it.

These organisations are known for their adaptability, risk taking, and innovation, and will always have an advantage on the cautious and reluctant competition.

Though the leadership qualities required for overcoming the negative effects of change are virtually identical to those required for overcoming the negative effects, additional qualities or actions specifically apply to leaders overseeing an organisation going through significant change.

Particularly, the leader should clearly drive the change process. The boss has to be personally and visibly in charge. The commitment to the process must be demonstrated by the direct leadership through it.

The leader must articulate the reasons for change, the process that the organisation will go through to achieve the objectives of the change, and the time the process take. Everyone in the organization needs to hear from the leader the why and how.

Gen Zinni believes that leaders who get through severe crisis and change have several traits in common. They are, first and foremost, exceptionally competent. They know their business.

They cannot just be cheerleaders. They have to possess the true skills to make the right choices.

They have also gained the respect and stature that instills trust and confidence among those they are leading through a trying speed.

Doubts are overcome by the belief that the leaders will succeed. And finally, they share and understand the burden.

They care about the effects of the crisis on their people, but they don’t accept excuses. They lead when true leadership is most needed.

 By Capt. Sam Addaih (Rtd.)

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