Nothing Tests a Leader Like a Crisis


SandyIn the month of October, Hurricane Sandy dealt a devastating blow to the East Coast. Major flooding, power outages, structural damage to business and homes, and fatalities are the only remnants of the ruinous storm.

With some states still reeling from the effects of the hurricane, it is impossible to turn on the television, open the newspaper, or search social media sites without witnessing the aftermath. During this traumatic event, many prominent public figures have stepped up to provide resources, assistance, and support to those affected by the hurricane. For example, Barack Obama cancelled his campaign in Ohio to assess the storm damage of New Jersey, and Lady Gaga donated $1 million to the American Red Cross to support storm relief efforts. Although individuals’ benevolence, selflessness, and service-orientation is vital to picking up the pieces of Hurricane Sandy, it raises an important question: why does this inspiring and energizing leadership appear more frequently in times of a crisis?

As Ron Ashkenas’ article notes, leaders typically modify their day-to-day behaviors during a sustained crisis. As a result, they tend to appear more willing to collaborate and communicate across boundaries, accelerate the decision making process, eliminate standard procedures and restrictions, and volunteer their time to hands-on service activities in order to help alleviate or resolve the crisis. These behaviors, however, slowly dissipate as the crisis begins to stabilize, immediate problems are solved, and the sense of urgency diminishes.

According to Ashkenas, there are two main reasons we witness extraordinary leadership during unordinary conditions. First, a crisis accelerates a leader’s ability to act decisively because there is not much time to evaluate, plan, or brainstorm. As such, a leader must be disposed to take action or effectuate a solution. Second, a crisis forces a leader to think creatively and quickly, while circumventing standard procedures and policies. In this case, fast, bold, and sometimes risky actions override predictable and safe ideas.

Demonstrating this type of passion, influence, and action-orientation may be beneficial for leaders in the corporate world, even when a crisis is not present. Subordinates and colleagues are typically drawn to these inspiring and energetic behaviors. You can identify what may motivate or influence leaders to respond to a crisis and how they may manage or approach a crisis and accompanying stress simply by looking at their Hogan assessment results. From this information, you can see a glimpse into how your leaders are likely to act during the good, bad, and ugly times organizations can face.