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7 essential leadership skills for a crisis CEO

Whatever your length of service in the top role, this tool-box will help you conquer adversity — and thrive.
Five silhouetted figures walk towards a bright white area on a predominantly red background, casting long shadows—an evocative portrayal of leadership skills in action.

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Key Takeaways
  • Crisis management is a daunting task that requires a unique blend of leadership skills.
  • The qualities outlined here form a comprehensive toolkit for crisis leadership.
  • The combined wisdom of Warren Buffett, John D. Rockefeller, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and others can help transform any CEO into a great crisis leader.

When a company faces a crisis, all eyes turn to the CEO for guidance, reassurance, and decisive action. As the person of last resort, the CEO bears the weight of steering the organization through turbulent waters, minimizing damage, and emerging stronger on the other side. Crisis management is a daunting task that requires a unique blend of leadership skills. It’s not just about business acumen; it’s about character, resilience, and the ability to rally people around a common goal in the face of adversity.

This article explores seven essential leadership skills every CEO needs to navigate a crisis effectively. These skills form a comprehensive toolkit for crisis leadership. From rapid response in the immediate aftermath to fostering a culture of learning and adaptation, they cover the full spectrum of crisis management. Whether you’re a seasoned CEO or stepping into the role for the first time, mastering these skills will help you weather any storm.

#1. Act rapidly and decisively

In the early days of a crisis, time is of the essence. CEOs must be able to make swift, informed decisions based on incomplete information. This requires a clear head, a steady hand, and the ability to rapidly assemble a cross-functional crisis management team. As John D. Rockefeller noted, “The first few hours after a crisis breaks are critical. The way in which a company responds can mean the difference between a quick recovery and a prolonged disaster.”

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CEOs must provide clear direction, effectively delegate responsibilities, and ensure immediate actions are taken to contain the crisis and mitigate its impact. This may involve making tough decisions, such as shutting down operations, recalling products, or issuing public apologies. The key is to act decisively based on the best available information rather than waiting for perfect clarity, which may never come. A CEO who can make tough calls quickly can often prevent a crisis from spiraling out of control.

#2. Communicate clearly and transparently

Communication can either restore confidence or destroy it during a crisis. CEOs must be transparent, acknowledging what they know and don’t. As Warren Buffett advised, “Get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over.” Regular updates through a single source of truth, such as a dedicated crisis webpage, can prevent misinformation and speculation.

Importantly, communication must be clear and sufficiently comprehensive, addressing the concerns of all stakeholders, particularly those most impacted. This means providing not just the facts but also the context, the implications, and the steps being taken to resolve the situation. CEOs should anticipate questions and concerns and proactively address them.

Communication can either restore confidence or destroy it during a crisis. CEOs must be transparent, acknowledging what they know and don’t. As Warren Buffett advised, “Get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over.”

At the same time, CEOs must be mindful of the tone and language used. Emotions run high in a crisis, and words carry extra weight. Poorly chosen words can inflame tensions and trigger adverse reactions. CEOs who communicate honestly and clearly can build trust and credibility, even in challenging circumstances.

#3. Balance commitment and adaptability

While immediate actions are critical, CEOs must keep an eye on the horizon. They must develop and execute a plan addressing the immediate crisis and charting the path to long-term recovery. As Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The planning process forces CEOs to consider multiple scenarios, anticipate challenges, and develop contingencies.

This requires a clear vision of the company’s post-crisis state and the ability to articulate that vision to inspire and motivate others. At the same time, CEOs must be flexible and adaptable. Crises are fluid and unpredictable. New information emerges, situations change, and original plans may need to be discarded.

CEOs must be comfortable with this ambiguity and ready to pivot as necessary. They must establish clear key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor the effectiveness of the response in real-time and use this data to inform decision-making. Balancing a clear strategic vision with tactical flexibility is a hallmark of effective crisis leadership.

#4. Engage stakeholders directly

A crisis affects different stakeholders in different ways. CEOs must identify who is most impacted and prioritize their needs. This involves active listening, understanding concerns, and tailoring communication and response strategies accordingly. As management consultant Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

For example, in a product recall crisis, customers are the most immediately affected stakeholder group. The CEO must prioritize addressing their concerns, providing clear information about the recall process, and ensuring prompt replacements or refunds. Simultaneously, CEOs must balance the needs of all stakeholders, including employees, shareholders, suppliers, regulators, and the broader community.

Effective stakeholder management involves ongoing dialogue, transparency, and a willingness to address concerns head-on. By engaging proactively with all stakeholders, CEOs can often turn a crisis into an opportunity to build stronger, more trusting relationships. This reservoir of goodwill can be invaluable in navigating the challenges ahead and emerging stronger post-crisis.

Every crisis has legal and ethical implications. CEOs must ensure the company’s response complies with all relevant laws and regulations. As former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgments.”

This requires close collaboration with legal counsel. For example, in a data breach crisis, CEOs must ensure compliance with data protection laws and breach notification requirements to avoid severe penalties and legal action.

However, legal compliance is just the baseline. CEOs must also consider the ethical dimensions of their decisions, asking not just “Is this legal?” but “Is this right?” This requires a strong moral compass and the courage to make difficult decisions that may have short-term costs but are necessary for long-term trust and credibility.

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CEOs who prioritize legal and ethical leadership during a crisis can safeguard against secondary crises, such as regulatory investigations or reputational damage, and often emerge with their reputation and stakeholder trust intact or even enhanced.

#6. Role-model authentic empathy

A crisis is a human challenge as much as a business one. CEOs must demonstrate emotional intelligence, showing strength and empathy in equal measure. As Daniel Goleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence theory, argues, “Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal.”

In a crisis, employees, customers, and other stakeholders often experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. They look to the CEO for not just practical solutions but also emotional reassurance and support. CEOs must be able to put themselves in the shoes of their stakeholders, understand their perspectives and feelings, and respond with genuine caring and concern.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The most effective CEOs use crises as opportunities to learn, adapt, and ultimately lead their organizations to new levels of success.

This involves active listening, being present and attentive in conversations, and acknowledging the emotional impact of the situation. It also involves communicating with authenticity and vulnerability, sharing one’s emotions and challenges to create connection and trust.

CEOs who lead with emotional intelligence during a crisis can tap into a powerful source of human resilience and dedication. By creating a sense of shared purpose and solidarity, they can often inspire their teams to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and emerge stronger and more united.

#7. Lead post-crisis learning

A crisis is not just a test; it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. After the immediate threat has passed, CEOs must lead a thorough post-crisis review, analyzing what went well and what didn’t and how processes can be improved. This involves creating a safe space for honest reflection, asking tough questions, and being open to uncomfortable answers. CEOs must resist the temptation to assign blame and instead focus on understanding root causes and identifying areas for improvement.

For example, after a major data breach, a CEO might lead a comprehensive review of the company’s cybersecurity policies, procedures, and training. This could reveal gaps in employee awareness, outdated software, or insufficient incident response protocols. By addressing these issues systematically, the company can reduce the risk and potential impact of future breaches.

CEOs must then ensure that these lessons are incorporated into the company’s crisis management plan and that the organization is better prepared for future challenges. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The most effective CEOs use crises as opportunities to learn, adapt, and ultimately lead their organizations to new levels of success. By fostering a culture of continuous learning, they build organizations that become stronger through crises.

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