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Crisis Management: what makes a successful leader?

Crisis Management: what makes a successful leader?

COVID-19 has turned the business world upside down. For many, navigating through the pandemic will be the biggest challenge of their professional career.

How we respond and lead through a crisis can determine if a business survives or fails.

“While an initial crisis may not have been preventable, the secondary crisis of a bungled response is avoidable,'1 writes Eric J. McNulty, Associate Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

Businesses who have responded swiftly and effectively to the pandemic often have a strong and capable leader at the helm. Successful leadership does not happen by accident. Leadership is a talent, which encompasses several competencies and behaviours that enable someone to both lead and inspire those around them – especially in times of uncertainty.

However, before we talk about leadership in a crisis – it is important to understand the definition of organisational leadership. It is more than being a manager, or ‘in charge’ of a team. A leader is responsible for direction and vision within an organisation, providing a clear sense of purpose and driving strategic intent. They take into account market trends and environmental influences, identifying longer term opportunities and risks.

Through inclusive leadership, they are responsible for developing ethical, innovative and supportive cultures, with the ability to deliver results. They are also a role model, with responsibility for those in senior positions with significant organisational budget.

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on leadership, good and bad, in both political and business spheres. The way Jacinda Ardern handled the pandemic in New Zealand – which has been widely praised – verses how Donald Trump responded in the US is a clear example of differing leadership styles.

“The distinction here is about leadership behaviours rather than focusing on the individuals to appoint blame,” says Angela Enright, Online Tutor for the Online MBA at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), in a recent webinar called “Leading through COVID-19.” “Rather we need to look at their responsibilities. Looking back at the definition of leadership and Jacinda's success, it was about ensuring the public health of the population. Through her actions and the timeliness of her decision-making they were able to eradicate COVID-19 very quickly. Whereas with Trump we have seen rallies and lack of accountability on wearing masks which has impacted on the numbers of people who have been affected.”

The pandemic has also posed an unprecedented crisis management scenario for businesses around the world. Leaders in the private sector are being held accountable to shareholders and employees, whilst in the public sector they are trying to maintain the running of vital services and the management of government budgets. Whilst some businesses are managing to diversify and thrive, others are failing.

We have also felt the impact of leadership decisions within our own organisations, from moving to remote working, to the varying degrees of emotional and practical support given to employees.  How these decisions have been handled and executed at a leadership level can mean the difference between success and failure of an organisation, as well as having a significant impact on the wellbeing of staff. 

However, a successful leader is more than just a competent decision maker. “When evaluating the performance of those in leadership positions, how much of our perception is based on technical ability, skills and expertise and how much is related to the behaviours of the leader, how they interacted with people and how they made you and others feel? The impact of their decisions on individuals is equally important in determining their success,” says Enright. 

The impact of leadership decisions and behaviours is amplified in a crisis situation, where others are looking to the senior leadership team for answers. Crisis management, risk assessments and contingency planning is part of strategic leadership, however it is not always possible to plan for every eventuality.

COVID-19 is categorised as a ‘low probability / high impact scenario’ and as such, many organisations would have been unprepared. Without contingency plans to follow, it is the core behaviours of the leadership team that are important in determining the way forward.

There are several attributes that leaders need in a crisis situation. Firstly, the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty is key. They also need a realistic outlook on the company's situation as well as the ability to make tough decisions. Building trusting relationships with stakeholders, both internal and external, is also important – along with optimism. Of course, the ability to lead and inspire is also imperative.

With the advent of social media, how leaders are perceived to be responding to a crisis is also paramount. Responding quickly, with empathy and awareness is expected. A leader must also be decisive and act quickly on the information at hand.

Also centric to successful crisis leadership is maintaining high ethical and moral standards. “How leaders react are an embodiment of their values,” says Enright. Louise Pentland, Executive VP of PayPal and Hitachi agrees; “[The pandemic] has sent companies back to their core principles. Empathy and the humanitarian element of leadership play a particularly important role in this crisis.”2

Becoming a successful leader is not something that happens overnight, it is an attribute that needs to be developed and nurtured throughout your career. As part of the Online MBA at NTU, there is a Professional Leadership and Development Module that helps students to realise their leadership potential and learn how they can use their personal goals for organisational impact. This includes using a number of diagnostics to help students get to know their leadership personality and develop the emotional intelligence needed for successful self-leadership, as well as the leadership of others.

“Whether students are looking for a more senior role or to set up their own business, we help them to think through their strengths and weaknesses, how they propose to work, what their values are, what they want to achieve and how they are going to get there,” says Enright.

Focusing on professional leadership and development will enhance your effectiveness through changes to your mindset and improve your approach to decision-making as well as your impact within a team – both virtually and face-to-face - which will, in turn, impact positively on organisational effectiveness.

If you are looking to become a leader in your industry, the Online MBA from NTU can help you gain the skills and insight you need to make your goals a reality. For more information, please visit our course information page or give our Admissions team a call on UK: 0800 032 1180 or Intl: +44 (0)115 941 8419.


  1. PENTLAND, L (2020) What coronavirus tells company boards about the next crisis (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 02.11.20]
  2. MCNULTY, E (2020) Leading Through COVID-19 (Online) Available at: <,in%20this%20time%20reflect%20that.> [Accessed 02.11.20]
  3. Lee, B, Preston, F, Green, G (2012) Preparing for High-impact, Low-probability Events (Online) Available at: <,%20Environment%20and%20Development/r0112_highimpact.pdf> [Accessed 02.11.20]