Leading in Times of Crisis

Challenges Ahead

There is a ton of advice out there on how to lead during a crisis.  I work at Chicago Public Schools and we have been operating in crisis mode for the past few years due to ever worsening budget reductions and resource constraints.  For better or worse, the lever most often used to represent swift and immediate change is leadership.

While crafting the executive letters for our annual financial report, I spent quite a bit of time combing through press releases, television interviews and other sources that tell the story of how CPS is leading in this time of crisis.  It is my job to take a few voices and merge them into one.  At the same time, I try to find some best practices or other editorial sources which weigh-in on how we are doing and what leaders in crisis should be doing.  One of the best sources, is the following posting by the Governmental Financial Officers Association.

Leadership Behaviors During a Recovery

There is no single best style of leadership for a recovery process, but effective leaders of financial recovery do have some commonalities. Below is a checklist of important leadership qualities and behaviors for recovery. Remember that leadership is a skill, so if your team is missing a trait it can be learned.

Credibility. Credible leaders will be followed. Usually financial distress is a long-term problem with multiple rounds, so it is important to build, maintain, and often restore credibility through the ups and downs. There are many strategies for building leadership credibility.

Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity for self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation, empathy, and adeptness in relationships. Emotional intelligence is essential in a financial recovery because stress, distrust, paranoia, and lack of confidence are prevalent. The leader will need to understand these emotions and offer an empathetic response and honest answers in order to calm fears, create a supportive environment, and to motivate people.

Collaborative. The leader must be comfortable with collaboration and recruiting other people to the cause, trusting their judgment, and enabling them to help create the solution. In the very early steps of the recovery, the leader may not be able to collaborate much while assessing the situation and scouting potential allies, but he or she will need to build teams and delegate as early as possible. However, collaboration must always be balanced with decisive action.

Action-orientation. The leader should be a catalyst and not wait for events to take their course. The leader should also create a focused sense of urgency – not panic, but a relentless pursuit of relevant objectives.

Detail-orientation. Recovery is a long and difficult process. The recovery leader must be willing to give the process personal attention and delve into the details of diagnosing the causes of financial distress and creating solutions. Especially in larger organizations, the leader does not have to know every minute detail of the organization’s finances, but he or she does need to have a substantive command of financial position and the issues in play. He or she must also pay close attention to designing a process that is participative, that is perceived to respect the opinion of the public, and that is perceived to be based on an expert approach to financial management.

Vision. The leader needs to see the end-goal and communicate it to others. The leader helps others envision the better future the recovery process is intended to produce. The vision becomes the new story of the organization and helps everyone relate to their role in that future.

Enthusiasm about public service. The leader is passionate about serving the public interest. The leader doesn’t accept a business-as-usual attitude, but instead aspires to excellence. The leader spreads this enthusiasm to others. At the same time, the leader is patient and sticks to strategies, realizing that change does not happen overnight.

Fairness. Equity is a central theme in public administration. The leader must develop and manage a recovery process that is fair. It must balance the concerns of different stakeholder groups, respect the public’s wishes, and lead towards real financial sustainability.

Respect. The recovery leader shows respect for all stakeholders, including employees, the public, and elected officials. This respect is reflected in communication strategies and the process.

Honesty and forthrightness. The leader shares needed information (even bad news) with people so that they can make the best decisions. Honesty reduces uncertainty. Uncertainty amplifies the stress people feel in a recovery situation.

Skepticism. The recovery leader is not overly confident or optimistic. The leader treats with extreme caution any solution that sounds too good to be true or promises gain without pain. Also, the leader subjects his or her own views to scrutiny – both through self-honesty and inviting the opinions of others.

Courage. Courage is necessary to deliver bad news. It may be tempting to wait for the “right time” to address a problem, but there never is a “right time” in a distressed situation. Courage is also necessary to propose and take bold actions. This may even include going outside of normal “best practices”.

This advice is applicable to all roles in life: parent, employer, social leader, politician, etc.  Knowing how to lead in times of crisis is critical to properly managing through recovery and healing.

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Categories: Professional Development

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6 replies

  1. Great list, but playing devil’s advocate for a moment: can all behavior really be learned? If so, what point is there in having complementary partnerships? Better, I think, to become world-class at the few things you do exceptionally well, and partner with others who can mitigate for areas in which you might lack talent. It is terribly difficult to transfer things like empathy and organization from one person to another. Mostly this results in performance that goes from poor to below average, where that same investment in something already good might make it excellent. This same permission afforded to everyone in an organization or district yields exponentially better outcomes than trying to train everyone to have the same skill set.

    • Hello. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you in that it’s best to focus in stregthening inherent skill sets or natural talents. Perhaps the benefit of diversity in skill-set is why organizations invest so in leadership teams. I suppose I have not been fortunate enough to see any gifted ones in action in my professional capacity. There always seemed to be something missing. Although in the my charity role, I am involved with teen living programs which has the most amazing leadership team I have encountered: talents, passion, skills, personality, thinking types, knowledge, backgrounds, etc. They are incredibly impressive and inspire me in how I would like to build my own team one day.

      Take care,


  2. The leader is a good steward.


  1. Leading in Times of Crisis | Sherry Clayton Works | C-Suite Mentor
  2. Vulnerability in Leadership « Sherry Clayton Works

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