Critical Leadership Competencies During a Crisis

From the desk of our Principal Consultant, Mr. Tan Tat Jin

The 2020 global pandemic has brought to the fore certain critical leadership competencies badly needed to effectively lead an organization through a massive crisis.  In this short article, we will explore the generic leadership competencies that are critical to all types of crisis and disregard the diverse strategies that could be implemented by a leader to ride through a crisis. 

Typology of Crises

Broadly speaking, there are 4 generic types of crisis as shown in the model below.  The two dimensions are External vs Internal factors and Evolutionary (gradual) vs Revolutionary (sudden) changes.  The illustrations given in the 4 boxes are intended to provide clarity to the model and are non-exhaustive.  If the contingency concept is to apply to the model, the strategy in managing the 4 quadrants will be dependent largely on the contextual challenges each organization faces.

Critical Leadership Competencies

Whilst the strategic thrusts in leading an organization through a crisis with minimal dysfunctional effects are understandably contextual, there are perhaps certain common qualities and/or competencies a leader should possess in a crisis.  Based on empirical evidence, the critical leadership competencies are:

  • Courageous decision-making
  • Judicious and timely communication
  • Agile change management
  • Empowering people


Courageous Decision-Making

In any crisis, courage is needed to make bold decisions that can address acute corporate pains quickly. For example, downward spin in revenues, overheads cost-containment, a dramatic surge in business demands, reputation risks, or problems with organizational capability.  Very often, the forced decision-making process is made under duress; whilst, under normal operating conditions, decisions are often guided by standard practices, precedents, or majority consensus after extensive deliberations.  Courage in making decisions pertaining to cost controls, manpower reduction, breakthrough innovative solutions, and unprecedented business processes are essential in implementing change solutions in a crisis or disruptive business environment.

Judicious and Timely Communication

Sound judgment is often needed in deciding what to communicate and what not to communicate as well as the emphases of core messages to different employee groups.  Whilst authenticity and transparency are valued in communication, certain information items that are either confidential, sensitive, or uncertain are best withheld or delayed.  Another consideration that requires judgment is the balance between sharing bad news and inspiring people with hope.  In open communication, the core messages have to be consistent across different levels and people groups to avoid confusion.  Timely communication is also vital to rule out potential confusion and negative consequences.

Agile Change Management

A crisis often breeds uncertainty, and it definitely calls for flexibility and quick adaptation to implementing changes.   Resourceful ways in problem-solving are often required to address time-sensitive issues and challenges.  Implicitly, a leader has to be close to the ground to know the evolving challenges and difficulties experienced by the staff.  In any crisis, more contact time in decision-making is to be expected with the leader taking a more visible role.

Empowering People

In any crisis, many timely decisions have to be made promptly without delay.  Hence, staff members have to be appropriately empowered to make operational decisions on the spot.  Besides, the decision-making load in a crisis is often heavier than normal operating conditions or simply put under “cruising mode’.  If the senior executives have to make most of the decisions, they can become overloaded and create “bottlenecks” in the decision-making process.   In addition, it is imperative to tap on the hidden talents of staff during a crisis in resolving complex and new problems. 



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