Four Characteristics of Good Crisis Leaders

Four Characteristics of Crisis Leaders - 1

Thirteen years ago today, on September 11, 2001, we witnessed both the destructive power of evil leadership and the resilient power of heroic leadership.   We saw heroic leadership in the first responders and private citizens who ran toward the burning towers, cornfield and the Pentagon.  But among those heroes, one figure stands tall as an example of effective leadership during the crisis as it unfolded and in the days following.  That person is former New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani.   Regardless of your current political leanings, his confident leadership during the 9/11 tragedies is something that you and I and leaders from all walks of life can learn from.

Rudy GiulianiGiuliani writes the following in his book, Leadership, published in 2002, “It is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge.”

Giuliani goes on to write in his book that during these times of crisis, good leaders must do certain things to be effective during those trying times.   He writes that good leaders in crisis situations must be highly visible, they must be composed, they must be vocal, and they must be resilient.

Good Leaders are Visible in a Crisis — Giuliani writes, “I made it my policy to see every crisis so I could evaluate it firsthand.”

During a crisis, leaders must be out front rather than running and hiding. They must go to the disaster and stand front and center, to assess the situation as well as show their concern, while also demonstrating confidence that the group will persevere.  Rather than hide from the chaos and confusion, be sure to step in to sort things out and find a solution.

Four Characteristics of Crisis Leaders - 3Again, political preferences aside, the importance of being visible during a crisis can also be learned from George W. Bush’s presidency. Like Giuliani, Americans rallied around President Bush when he went to Ground Zero and grabbed a bullhorn amid the rubble to reassure the nation.  Contrast that with President Bush’s lack of a timely response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was noticeably absent during the first days of the crisis and his poll numbers took a big hit.

What is the leadership lesson? Step up during a crisis to survey the scene and be there for your people.

Good Leaders are Composed in a Crisis — Giuliani writes: “Leaders have to control their emotions under pressure. Much of your ability to get people to do what they have to do is going to depend on what they perceive when they look at you and listen to you.”

During a crisis, no matter how difficult things may seem, you must maintain your poise under pressure. People will be looking to your face as well as tuning into the tone of your voice to determine whether they should panic or whether they should remain calm; to give in or maintain hope.  Coach Mike Krzyzewski reminds us in his book Leading with the Heart, “A leader must show the face his team needs to see.”

What is the leadership lesson? Be sure to show your people that you are calm and in control because your calm demeanor will go a long way toward helping your people think clearly and react appropriately during the crisis.

Good Leaders are Vocal in a Crisis — Giuliani writes, “I had to communicate with the public, to do whatever I could to calm people down and contribute to an orderly and safe evacuation”

This is a natural follow-on to being calm in a crisis.  In addition to being visible and composed, leaders must step up there efforts to calm people down and communicate with them.

What is the leadership lesson? You must speak out and try to mold what people are thinking and feeling at the time. You must reassure them and give them a simple yet specific plan that will get people through the crisis.

Four Characteristics of Crisis Leaders - 4Good Leaders are Resilient in a Crisis — Giuliani writes: “I am an optimist by nature. I think things will get better, that the good people of America and New York City will overcome any challenge thrown our way. So in the face of this overwhelming disaster, standing amid sixteen acres of smoldering ruins, I felt a mixture of disbelief and confidence… that Americans would rise to this challenge.”

As difficult as the crisis can seem, remind people that there is hope.  When leaders lose hope, the battle is nearly always over.  You must demonstrate that getting back up after being knocked down is just what you do in these situations.  They need to see that getting back up is normal.  They need to see that you have been knocked down, but that you didn’t stay down.

What is the leadership lesson? Give your people a sense of hope. Let them know that together we can and we will make it through the crisis.

My hope for each of you is that as you read this, you will pause and say a short prayer for the men and women who were heroes that day in New York City, Shanksville, PA and at the Pentagon.  Also, my prayer is that our Nation will be stronger having lived through the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

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I am a Christian, a Husband and a Father, in that order. Leadership is important to me, because I see too many outside influences acting on the lives of my children, and I need support to make sure I am the most dominant influence. I appreciate your feedback and enjoy reading your input. Thanks in advance for being part of this endeavor.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Billy, this is a strange day and we are living in strange times. I pray that no crisis occurs today that will require the kind of leadership that was exhibited 13 years ago. But, if it does, I am thankful for men like you who have answered the call in the past and who would answer the call again today if our Nation needed you.

    • I would like to think I would answer the call again, people say volunteering is in your DNA, but I have so much more to lose these days. I am not sure I would be as cavalier with my life again.

  • A great, great article to read and reflect on today!

  • As I reflect on where I was when this happened and trying to remember what I was thinking, I remember the first thought I had, Was what can I do? I remember calling my wife and her telling me they were sending her her home, because she worked in a high rise in the Galleria Area. But what I remember most of all was the conversations that we had at home that night with our then teenager. Those conversations were not about hate, they were about trying to understand why. I didn’t want her going back to school, the next day, and being part of bullying any Arabic students. Please take a minute today to remember those who lost a life, a loved one and those that are still in harms way. Lord protect them. Amen.

  • Wayne

    Billy,
    Very good article and great advice!
    As we move forward let us endeavor to raise up and encourage successful leaders!