Crisis Leadership

What is a crisis? There are many definitions. For the sake of this article, let’s stick with: ‘a crisis is a turning point or a difficult or dark time when disasters are happening or when tough decisions must be made’.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly meets some common characteristics of a crisis - specific, unexpected, and non-routine events or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organisation’s high priority goals.

Leadership in normal times is challenging and rewarding, though not necessarily in equal measures. It is said, ‘cometh the hour cometh the man (or woman)’ and there are plenty of examples of exemplary leadership when it was really needed, and not always from the person with ‘leader’ in their job title.

What are the characteristics of good crisis leadership?

  1. Understand the context of the situation
  • Acceptance – there will be confusion, you will not have all the answers and you will make mistakes. It’s part of being human.
  • Awareness – do lots of listening, consider all perspectives and integrate thoughts and ideas.  
  • Agility – show a high level of flexibility and generate plenty of options. Plan A, B, C etc.  
  • Anticipation – trust your intuition, it often serves us very well.

Be in the moment and don’t be tempted to think too far ahead. In a crisis, things change constantly as new information comes to light. Those around you need to know that you’re dealing with what’s in front of them now as this is what will immediately be on their minds. It’s a case of “The next step is… the next step… we can’t look any further out right now.” 

In summary, observe the situation. Generate options. Decide on appropriate actions. Act diligently.

  1. Rise to the challenge

Leaders are thrust into the spotlight during a crisis. Some will find this uncomfortable, but others rise to the challenge and can feel like this is what they’ve been destined to do. Either way, it’s imperative that they embrace good values as these are the foundations that a leader will often be judged by. This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but a starting point:

  • Attitude
  • Integrity
  • Teamwork
  • Humility
  • Self-regulation
  • Hope
  • Courage
  • Gratitude
  • Responsibility
  • Kindness
  • Commitment
  • Perseverance

Aim to be the leader that you wish you had. 

  1. Communicate effectively

It may be uncomfortable, but you must communicate reality. People process information at different speeds and in different ways – recognise this but ensure there is a consistent message. Be prepared and anticipate, where at all possible, as this demonstrates that you’ve assessed the situation and used all available information. Accept that there will be questions that you may not have the answers to yet.

A crisis requires a team effort - communicate with care and use the word ‘we’ a lot. It’s often a time to be very direct: “We must to do this by XYZ in order that…”

Above all else, communicate frequently and honestly (and don’t forget to be hopeful and positive). 

  1. Think creatively for after the crisis

Albert Einstein said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

As the leader, ask these yourself 3 questions:

  • What good thing is going to come out of this?
  • What would I love to do now I have more time?
  • What should I do now I have more time?

Every crisis brings about some form of change. It’s easy to dwell on the negative and sometimes this can’t be avoided. However, look past this and focus on constructive change. Search for opportunities both as an individual and for the business.  

  1. Great leaders embrace technology 

How would the world cope with COVID-19 without fast internet connections, social media, and smartphones? Impossible to answer other than to say, in a very different way, no doubt.

Whatever the crisis, make use of all available technology and as a leader don’t be the one that sits on the side-lines whilst everyone else gets on with it. Even presidents and prime ministers embrace technology!   

  1. Have humility

Great leaders understand that it’s always a team effort, so:

  • Ask for help
  • Put people first
  • Give credit

And finally, a worldwide pandemic is at the outreaches in terms of the crisis scale and only one example of the need for crisis leadership. There are far more humble events that need the same fundamental skills and experience for businesses to survive. It’s always prudent to have a ‘what if’ plan (also known as a Business Continuity Plan) for just such a time and now could be the time to check whether the plan you previously prepared did in fact work and what elements you need to change for the future.   

Don’t forget that RWA is able to help with this. If you need any support, please get in touch with your RWA business manager or contact us via the helpdesk on 01604 709509 or

About the author

John has more than 30 years' experience in the world of general insurance, working for some of the largest UK brands including General Accident, CGU, Norwich Union and Aviva. He has a held a variety of senior roles in both trading and head office functions spanning underwriting, sales management, business development, propositions, marketing, electronic trading and acquisitions. At RWA John had responsibility for developing the business in London in addition to managing the relationship with several key clients. He left RWA in 2020.

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