A Cautionary Tale Around Crisis Leadership Styles

August 4, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019
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Since the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, we’ve spoken to senior leaders from many big organizations about their observations and learnings during the crisis. Most have been pleasantly surprised by how well their organization pivoted, how committed and hard-working their people were, how effective and efficient decision-making became “overnight”, how people acted with a sense of empowerment to do what’s right, and so on. Without exception, they told us stories of excellence.

In many organizations, crisis excellence is real. However, don’t be fooled - these traits don’t represent the “new normal”. Just as a shot of adrenaline gives a person “superpowers” in extreme situations, a crisis compels organizations to do amazing things. But when the crisis dissipates, it’s difficult to sustain the incredible behaviors and accomplishments that emerged. If your organization had a poor track record with execution at defining moments in the past, the crisis hasn’t likely fixed that. Welcome to the fallacy of crisis excellence: the erroneous belief that the excellence your organization has achieved during a crisis will continue after the crisis has passed. If your organization has weathered several major crises, it’s possible that you won’t fall prey to this fallacy during the Covid-19 pandemic. But if you haven’t been through anything like this before, watch out.


When the pandemic first hit, leaders had to suspend normal practices, shift to command-and-control and/or devolve decision-making, and redeploy people from their usual day jobs and priorities to perform other, more urgent tasks. This was absolutely the right way to conduct business in the initial chaos of a situation we’d never seen before, and people happily suspended their expectations and resistance-to-change in exchange for decisive action in the name of survival and saving lives.

Rather than being helplessly overwhelmed by circumstances, people took control of their own situation by charging into battle however they could.

Dr. Omar Lateef, CEO of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said they made changes in three weeks that would normally have taken two or three years. Mary Pittman, President and CEO of the Public Health Institute, told us about one case where they implemented a highly-effective bilingual contact tracing program in less than one week. Bill Anderson, CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals, told us how in the midst of the most serious public health crisis in a century, he’s been inspired by how committed employees have been, working around the clock and sustaining an amazing level of energy. When we spoke to Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square and author of The Innovation Stack, he likened his experience to the Great Flood of 1993, “when everyone was bagging sand and building levies. We were all fighting against the Mississippi, just filling a bag of sand and throwing it on the pile. That felt good and made you feel like you weren’t a victim.”

To rise to the challenge of Covid-19, organizations and their people mobilized with off-the-chart decisiveness and speed.


In the weeks and months that followed, the crisis situation stabilized and a “new normal” asserted itself. No longer in chaos, organizations focused on smaller, day-to-day challenges related to the pandemic, and their excellent decisiveness, speed and execution continued. People restarted their usual tasks and turned their attention back to their usual priorities, feeling good about themselves, their leaders, and their culture. Fear abated and expectations rose.

Many organizations are in this phase right now, still feeling good and a little self-satisfied about their performance during the first few months of Covid-19. They might be starting to believe that their new-found excellence is a permanent change that will simply continue.


As time goes on and we make our way into a new “new normal,” crisis conditions will no longer exist - nor will the organizational adrenaline that drove all those new behaviors. New and bigger defining moments for your organization will arise, but your decisiveness, speed and execution will, unfortunately,  slip back to pre-crisis levels.  Command-and-control will no longer be an acceptable mode of leadership, and you’ll have to return to consensus-based decision-making again. Normal jobs, priorities and practices will be fully back in play, as will resistance to change and “what’s in it for me?” thinking, and expectations of leaders will be higher than ever. While the pandemic may have given you a glimpse into what’s possible, the unfortunate truth is that old habits die hard. And unless you do some things differently, the spark of organizational excellence may shortly flicker out.

Leadership Styles


To pivot during the first few months, you and your organization relied on:

  • Command-and-control leadership and/or devolved decision-making
  • Suspension of business-as-usual practices and policies
  • Radical redeployment of people and/or re-prioritization of tasks
  • Fear, survival instinct, and openness to rapid change

These crisis responses brought out the best in you and your people and drove decisiveness, speed and strong execution. They also triggered new behaviors and attitudes:

  • Leaders became transparent, vulnerable, caring, honest and focused
  • Individuals felt empowered to do what’s right for colleagues, customers, and the company
  • People took care of each other and felt cared for
  • There was unity of purpose, alignment and focus
  • Everyone was rowing in sync to the beat of a drum you all heard

Although we may still be in the eye of the storm (if not fully experiencing storm conditions again), the pandemic will, at some point,  be over. And in the absence of that crisis, these “excellence” characteristics will only continue if you intentionally foster them in a different way. They are the right behaviors and attitudes, but without emergency conditions, your people will need to find a new reason to maintain them. That reason will come from leaders they believe in, leaders who continue to:

  • Exhibit the traits that people saw when the organization was under fire
  • Empower and trust people
  • Express and hold people to mission, purpose and values that are clear, relevant, and worth fighting for
  • Do away with practices and policies that waste time and don’t make sense
  • Invest the time and energy to get people aligned and mobilized to achieve great things.

In the absence of an immediate existential threat like Covid-19, it will fall to leadership, to you, to fan these flames.  If not, like politicians during and then after a crisis, expect that your currently soaring leadership “approval ratings” will come back to earth soon.

Original article posted on Forbes on Aug 4, 2020

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