• Feb 03 2020

The Three “A’s” of Crisis Leadership

In leadership, we all share two realities. The first is that we will inevitably face crisis situations at different points in time throughout our careers. A major system malfunctions creating customer experience woes – a team member is unable to deliver on a deadline – or, perhaps a new market disruptor is eroding your market share. As a leader, this inevitable reality can catch us off guard and alter the course by which we make decisions and approach future situations.

The second reality all leaders face is that we are all human. Our neurological conditions are not designed to respond to crisis situations in a logical manner. In fact, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has published countless articles and conducted a myriad of studies that demonstrate the impaired state our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for the perception of emotions) is in during a crisis and how it impairs our ability to make rational decisions. This creates a challenge for leaders as we must set the tone for our teams and make rapid, sound decisions that pull us all through any difficult situation.

The Big Red Binder Trap

Given our shared realities as leaders, the question becomes, how do we lead effectively during a crisis? Fortunately, most organizations have sought to address this reality by focusing on being prepared and having a plan in place for a host of critical realities. We all likely know of the big red binder that sits on the bookshelf that tells us precisely what we need to do should a crisis arise. Without question, organizations should be armed with contingencies to deal with crises but they often serve as a blueprint, no matter how prescriptive. The combination of relentless research, working with countless leaders, and my own experience has taught me that the key strategy to effective leadership during a crisis is simple – keep it simple with the 3 A’s.

1) Awareness

During any crisis situation, awareness takes shape in the idea of “facts are your friends.” Ask yourself: “What is actually happening?” “What do I know about this situation?” “What are my initial and ongoing priorities?” Starting with what you know about the situation and where to find additional information ensures you remain focused on the actual problem as opposed to peripheral distractions that derail your focus. Then, communicate the facts of the situation to your team and stakeholders in a clear and honest manner. Try to avoid opinion and speculation and don’t be afraid to share the difficult realities you may be facing.

In fact, being aware of your situation is the tenet of the Situation Analysis addressed in Implementing Winning Strategies and Leading Strategic Growth. According to Professor Willie Pietersen, getting to the “brutal truths” of your situation is the hallmark of establishing a winning strategy. During a crisis, effective leaders are able to refer back to their “brutal truths” in a swift and systematic way to ensure they are constantly aware of the situation they are facing and how it is progressing. As a result, quick decisions can be made while factual and useful information is shared with pertinent stakeholders.

2) Agility

Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, wrote “In the complex and uncertain environment of a sustained, evolving crisis, the most robust organizations will not be those that simply have plans in place but those that have continuous sensing and response capabilities.” Simply following the tenets in the red binder is essential but not sufficient in that organizational dynamics are constantly shifting during a crisis, which requires leaders to be nimble and adapt their leadership methodologies accordingly. Effective crisis leaders continually respond to their current realities and sense how their environment and stakeholders are and could be reacting to govern their next move.¹

While crucial, the strategy of being agile is difficult without an effective framework. Ori Braufman, in Launch into Leadership and High Impact Coaching: Flexing to New Situations discusses the use of The Agility Loop to help leaders become and remain agile in any situation.

Since we know that our brains function differently in times of crisis, the agility loop is particularly helpful as it forces us to intentionally focus on our teams and the situation in order to adapt to our new (and hopefully temporary) situation. When practiced as a way of working, it also helps leaders remain agile and more prepared for future challenges we may face.

3) Action

Simply put, effective leaders take swift action during a crisis situation. This is not to say they take any action, rather, they act on their initial assessments to demonstrate their ability to take initiative and push forward. Immediate action in a crisis situation can calm the waters and assure your team and stakeholders that you are focused on the problem at hand. These initial actions can be as simple as initial communications about “the knowns and unknowns” or as directive as establishing response teams and game plans. 

In Accelerating Change Readiness and Agility, Professor Homa Barhami stresses the importance of the Scientific Approach to Change with an emphasis on “baby steps.” Taking small, measureable, and organized “baby steps” in any crisis can not only lead to the establishment of practical milestones, but also the ability to sense and respond in an agile manner. This methodology should include clear owners, deadlines, and any pertinent details needed for the step to be considered “complete.”


  1. Nohria, Nitin. “What Organizations Need to Survive a Pandemic.” Harvard Business Review. January 30, 2020. www.hbr.com.

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