Leadership in Crisis

April 26, 2020


Dr Sven Hansen

Deep Leadership Skills for Leaders and Senior Teams

Rarely do we encounter times when deep leadership is so critical. The world and its operating systems are thrown into a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) crucible. Leadership is deeply challenged. In time, history will create stories of who failed and who prevailed. For now, the playbook is disrupted. Novelty beckons.

We have been challenged by our clients to help shape leadership beyond physiology. Resilience is the learned and practiced ability to bounce, grow, connect and flow. Let’s turn this upside down and start with flow as the ability to match the right skills to unpredictable – or VUCA – challenges. Skilful action will be the measure of good leadership.

Resilient leadership will be judged by action. These deep skills need practice.

How the Resilience Spiral supports Deep Leadership

What is important enough to get up and fight for?

Fight (courage/will to prevail/purpose)

Alexia Michiels, colleague in Europe suggested adding this one. Thank you. Without the will to prevail, there is no leadership. This is the drama of heroic journeys. Broken and humbled against impossible odds, the hero/heroine remembers why, finds the will to get up and does battle.

The first step is to decide what matters. What will you surrender and what will you fight for. These are not trivial choices. Is it your wealth or your family? Is it your employees or your shareholders? Customers or the planet? Will you protect your old business model or pivot to a digital or sustainable model?

Perhaps once in a lifetime, a crisis comes along that shapes the next generation. This is one of them. Take time to articulate clearly what you will fight for. Define why and how it matters. Welcome the risk of failure. Summon your courage. Get up and fight for it.

Do this and you are already amongst the elite.

Scenario visualisation

The second step is to visualise alternate outcomes clearly. Will the Covid-19 response be followed by a V (rapid recovery), W (second or multiple setbacks), U (long downturn) or L (multi-year depression) shaped economics? How will political systems interact with the economic and social strains? BCG has an excellent article here on scenarios.

The outcomes are very different. There is no certainty. Leaders have to be able to see the probability of alternate scenarios and to create a working plan for each one.


In distress, our capacity for empathy collapses. We are biased to self-interest. History will judge narcissistic leaders poorly. More critical, the only way through this situation will be through collaboration. A big heart and disciplined empathy are essential. Be as physically present as possible. Seek to detect and share the emotions felt. Explore and acknowledge different perspectives. Leaders have to demonstrate genuine care and compassion even when their actions cause suffering.

Situational Agility

Elite forces are drilled in the practice of rapid, agile and effective response to chaos. Many leaders today are drilled in routine processes. This is the most serious risk to leadership right now. Leaders have to recognise and counter the freeze, fight and flight reactions.

In FREEZE, thought, emotion and physiology are too disrupted to comprehend reality. Action becomes impossible. In FIGHT, anger drives blame, reactive attacks and irrational action. In FLIGHT, fear prohibits thinking and action. Procrastination and doubt destroy agile, focused action. Name them. Tame them. Reframe them.

Tactical calm is a real-time practice to counter these reactions, relax, look around, see the next step and execute a disciplined response fast. Plan for the possible, maintain a clear mind and emotional resilience. Thus, you see yourself clearly and comprehend an unpredictable chain of events.

Feel the discomfort, relax, look around, decide and execute.


Calm, quick and clear decisions are essential. Leaders will make mistakes. Absorb, learn, reassess and decide again. The best decisions require system 2 thinking. It is expensive, slow and deliberate. In crisis and chaos, it cannot be relied upon. First, rehearse and plan for the possible decisions in the scenario planning phase. Drill these decisions, the communications, and the execution in executive rehearsals.

Second, when confronted by a challenge, use this practice to feel the right decision using system 1 (more feeling than thinking). It cheap, rapid and instinctive. If you practice this – just like soldiers do in fire-fights – your decisions will serve. If you don’t practice system 1 will lead to freeze, fight and flight.

Ok team, so if this happens next week, what is the decision? How will we communicate? What are the execution steps? Clear? Now, let’s practice!

Language: realistic, optimistic and practical

“This is a clusterf*ck!” True, reflects your distress and cool. When this comes from a leader it is destructive. Before you let the first reaction out, reflect and consider the most skilful way to express it. “This is a complex, messy crisis” (realistic). “Opportunities will present” (optimistic). “Call your top 10 clients and check on how they are going” (practical).

“I am stressed out / over this / tired!” Maybe true but you have seeded a contagion of doubt. Try: “This is tough to deal with well” (realistic). “Focus on what you can achieve” (optimistic). “Take time with your family and look after yourself” (practical).

What you say and do is the core of conscious leadership. Manage your thoughts very carefully. Think through what they would sound like to others. What impact might they have. How can I think this through better? Realistic? Optimistic? Practical?

Take time to explain the importance of thinking and language to your team. Agree on the language you will use with direct reports, suppliers and customers.

Self Discipline

These critical skills are neither consistent nor sustainable if you cannot manage your own physiological foundations. Worse, if you try to develop them when your resilience is compromised you get poor results. The wisdom, awareness, altruism, creative thinking, decisiveness and optimism are simply not available if you cannot secure your sleep, fitness, relaxation, constructive daily rhythms and recovery time.

In summary, what skills will meet extraordinary challenges. Seek expertise in flow. Connect with meaning and collaborate with others. Grow your leadership skills. Prepare for repeated, rapid bounce.

Our current research report on 7,473 senior leaders and professionals and what defines the most resilient leaders. The numbers are percentage of answers "very often" and "nearly always"

What the most vs least resilient 10% of clients pay serious attention to:

STRENGTH FACTORSTOPBOTTOMFulfilment901Focus945Presence958Bounce894Integrity9614Decisiveness9413Optimism9213Purpose8810Flow9012

What the top 10% restrain with diligence:

RISK FACTORSTOPBOTTOMWorry166Fatigue065Self-critical1376Rumination058Hypervigilance252Angst151Apathy050Insomnia1250Intensity553

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