Marks of a Crisis Leader

Failures of crisis leadership overwhelm the news media, as well as after-action reviews and short-lived careers of managers, executives, celebrities and politicians. On the other hand, successful crisis leaders are hailed as outstanding exemplars of courage, wisdom and achievement in our society. Research has taught us that there are some predictable characteristics and traits that tend to distinguish these two oppositional figures.

Leaders in a crisis are usually highly specialized managers who must fully utilize specialized technical knowledge as well as teamwork skills in trying situations. These individuals must be sound at navigating challenging situations to achieve critical objectives. Each must be well-trained and ready to navigate high-stress, and frequently changing, circumstances while also able to effectively communicate to their team.

In my 3-Dimensional Model© of Effective Leaders, I identified three core traits found in the most effective crisis leaders. These traits include:

  1. Strong communication skills
  2. Expertise and seasoned experience
  3. Positive dispositions. 

According to my research, positive communication factors are identified by persuasive and articulate communication, being able to listen, staying open-minded, asking questions, adapting to others, being cooperative, engaging in group/team communication and tolerating ambiguity.

Successful leaders should also have plenty of field experience. Already having positive experiences is important because seasoned veterans are familiar with the organization, its contingency plans and its recovery operations. However, with adequate training – including mock drills, simulations and hands-on training – even individuals with limited real-life experience are able to increase their experience levels as leaders.

Finally, maintaining a positive disposition and mental makeup is also crucial in effective leadership. Crisis and recovery management involves functioning despite time constraints, high stress, inadequate decision frames, and the necessity to carefully complete critically important tasks far beyond the duties of the day-to-day workplace tasks. Always being “on the clock” can bog most folk down, but it’s essential that leaders maintain the “right” attitude and respond to these tense situations with positive disposition.

Although some of these “marks” of effective crisis management leaders are innate for some, these traits can also be taught and learned by the rest of us.

About the Author: Robert C. Chandler, Ph.D.
Dr. Robert C. Chandler is a Professor of Communication and Director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he leads the Center for Crisis Communication. He is an internationally recognized professional speaker and social scientific researcher with more than 150 academic and professional papers based on his research of crisis communication, leadership, teamwork, decision making, and psychometric variables during emergency and crisis communication.


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