Crises Need Real Leaders

The ramifications of the Coronavirus have surprised many governments and companies. Quickly, it has been revealed which governments and companies were prepared for a crisis situation. From one day to the next, plans have had to be thrown overboard. Strategic plans have no longer been the focus from one moment to the next. The focus has been on sheer survival. Many have been completely unprepared for this situation. Which communication strategy is the right one in the crisis situation? How must leadership look during the crisis? How must the decision-making now look in the exceedingly-complex situation? Without preparation, we lose the critical time for mastering the crisis – and time is the decisive factor in crises.


But what is even a crisis at all? Where this term truly originated initially is today not so clear. Some sources attribute it to J.F. Kennedy who spoke of “crisis management” in conjunction with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In business management, the term “crisis management” has increasingly been used only then since the 1970s – even if it also initially was used in quite diverse contexts. Crisis management means leadership (planning, steering and controlling) for the purposes of anticipating, preventing and mastering survival-critical processes at companies. However, based upon this understanding of the term, this means that the crisis will have already begun much earlier before we perceive that a crisis even exists – it will begin when we are not prepared for it. But how can we prepare for an event when we don’t even know how it will be and when it will occur?


Thus, a crisis can occur as the result of an unforeseeable event or as the unexpected consequence of an event. This event will customarily be classified in crisis management as a potential risk. Thus, efficient risk management is inseparably intertwined with crisis management. In risk management, in addition to preventative measures to avoid risks, we also prepare for the crisis itself. Via diverse situational reports, we can prepare for scenarios and even if a completely-unexpected event occurs, it is often possible to use the situational reports as the guiding principles for the current crisis. For each crisis, one thing is certain: In crises, decisions must be made quickly.


To not respond to the crisis is also a decision. A decision which so many governments chose initially when confronted with SARS-CoV-2. In China, illnesses had been reported since December 2019. On January 30, 2020, the WHO’s Emergency Committee assembled together and declared a health emergency of an international scope. And nonetheless governments themselves believed for even months that they didn’t have to appropriately respond to it. Thus, they lost valuable time because, during a crisis, initially the time factor is of critical importance. We know that, after a shock wave – and that is the news of a worldwide pandemic – initially very often there is denial before we can accept it rationally and emotionally. But time is the most important factor at the beginning of the crisis, but it is also important to curtail the damage for the affected country and/or the affected organization. For this reason, the initial measure for successful crisis management is usually to find a person which will act as the Crisis Manager. In a government, this is inevitably the head of the government; at a company, this must be the CEO who leads the system through the crisis. What then follows is the “hands-on work” of crisis management: Establishing a crisis management team, detailed plans (which should already have been prepared in advance), setting up monitoring systems for the data collection for, creation and assessment of scenarios and above all information upon a regular basis. Insofar as this is possible, the participation of all essential players and/or a sufficient number of experts during the planning and decision-making for measures is naturally the path through efficient crisis management.


At the end of a crisis, things are never as they were before. The experience of a vitally-threatening event always results in changes to the brain’s functions. A crisis is like a traumatic experience. In our limbic system, the crisis remains a memory. The hippocampus and the amygdala are already handling it. However, if we have the feeling of having been skillfully led through the crisis, then this will also give us confidence for the future. Leadership in crises lays the foundation for the future. Thus, more than ever, the following applies during the crisis: Communicate as often as necessary, but it must be “digestible” for the recipients. Moreover, the communication must be done upon a regular basis; thus, the “digestion” must occur in small portions. Therefore, during the crisis, we see who is a good Manager, who has mastered communication to such an extent that he can (positively) steer people. Crises reveal our true leadership qualifications!

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