Leading in a Crisis

“A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.” -English proverb

The recent earthquake in Chile is a grim reminder of what it takes to lead in a crisis. Unlike the situation in Haiti, Chile has both a functioning government and the infrastructure in place to respond to the disaster. However, the Chilean response has not been fast enough (MSNBC, 2010). Chilean leaders are immobilized from not knowing what to do and their actions in disarray.

In Chile, survivors said they had little warning about the coming tsunami. Furthermore, they’re angry that the government’s response, in providing aid and support, has been slow. Looting has resulted as people desperate for food and supplies say they’re not getting any help (MSNBC, 2010).

In “7 Lessons for Leading in a Crisis” (2009), Bill George said that a crisis is like being at war. Crises test a leader’s ability to lead an organization through and out of a crisis. “There is nothing quite like a crisis to test your leadership. It will make or break you as a leader. Crises have brought down many leaders and their organizations with them…” (George, 2009, p. 1).

George (2009) maintained that leaders who are never tested (i.e. have never gone through a crisis) may be unable to handle crisis situations. Instead, under such emergencies, these untested leaders may buckle under pressure or freeze.

This is akin to an emergency room doctor who has just graduated from medical school and doing his internship. Although he may have learned what to do via textbooks, he has never been in a real crisis situation before.

From my experience conducting crisis management workshops, I have seen this first-hand. During the didactic (teaching/lecturing) portion, professionals will appear to be learning the required skills about what to do in a school or classroom emergency (e.g., when a student becomes violent). In simulated exercises, they’ll seem a bit less skilled. And in the final phase of the training, in testing (applying knowledge to simulated scenarios), they are the least proficient.

Finally, after these workshops and without a chance to apply what they’ve learned, their skills level decrease and sometimes disappear altogether.

My recommendation, based on my experience teaching crisis management, is to practice, practice, practice for emergencies. Just as police SWAT teams practice, just like firefighters practice, just like nurses and doctors practice to stay sharp during emergencies, so too should organizational leaders practice. They need to develop an emergency plan, get stakeholders involved, practice and then practice some more.


George, B. (2009). 7 lessons for leading in a crisis. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

MSNBC (2010, March). Lots of anger, some aid, in disaster zone. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35657707/ns/world_news-chile_earthquake/