Leadership Through Organizational Crisis

During a July 2022 presentation for Peter Berry Consultancy, Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer for Hogan, gestures at a projector screen displaying Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 during its engine failure on April 17, 2018. Sherman’s presentation focused on the personality characteristics of people who show effective leadership through organizational crisis. Flight 1380 was piloted by Tammie Jo Shults, who is an excellent example of a crisis-resilient leader.
Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer for Hogan, gave a presentation on leadership through organizational crisis in summer 2022.

In 2018, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 experienced engine failure. Debris from the engine struck the wing and a window, causing rapid decompression in the cabin and one passenger fatality. The flight’s captain, Tammie Jo Shults, who was one of the first women to become a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, calmly worked with air traffic control to land the plane successfully. Organizations always have crises, but they don’t always have leaders as skilled, self-possessed, and decisive as Captain Shults. What does it take to lead effectively through an organizational crisis?

First, we’ll explore what leadership means. Next, we’ll review characteristics of leaders who succeed through crises. Finally, we’ll touch on what organizations can do to develop crisis-resilient leaders.

What Do We Mean by Leadership?

Crisis is commonplace. Every organization will face a crisis at some point. Leaders are responsible for dealing with those crises, and their legacy is typically defined by how well they handle challenges.

Leadership is related to organizational success. In fact, research shows that leadership has a significant impact on organizational financial results. Who’s in charge really matters.

When we think about leadership, we need to start with human origins. Humans are a group-living species, meaning that leadership has always been critical for group survival. It involves convincing people to put aside their self-motivated goals to work together to accomplish a bigger task that benefits the group. Whether we’re talking about warfare, business, or athletics, successful leadership hinges on group effectiveness.

Leadership is the ability to build and maintain a high-performing team.

At Hogan, we’ve been studying leadership in conjunction with team outcomes and organizational effectiveness for decades. We’ve learned a thing or two about how personality predicts who leads and how they lead.

What Are Crisis-Resilient Leadership Characteristics?

A quick word on these data: Hogan’s data science team surveyed studies on effective leadership through crises, identified the behaviors of successful leaders, and mapped them to the Hogan competency model. (We have conducted more than 400 criterion-related validity studies. That means we looked at personality and performance to learn which competencies matter for which behaviors, including effective leadership.)

So, what are the personality characteristics of leaders who effectively lead through a crisis?

Without further ado, let’s get to our findings . . .

Bright-Side Personality Characteristics in Leadership

The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) assesses the bright side of personality using seven scales to predict how people behave when they are at their best. Two HPI scales are related to how leaders respond during crisis situations: Adjustment and Ambition.

Adjustment measures the degree to which a person appears confident, self-accepting, and stable under pressure. Adjustment has to do with whether a leader panics easily or remains calm. It also speaks to whether the leader can confidently make critical decisions. (Think of Tammie Jo Shults’s composure as the airplane’s engine failed.)

Ambition measures the degree to which a person appears self-confident, leader-like, competitive, and energetic. The Ambition scale can indicate a leader who models appropriate behavior to maintain order and who can adapt to unanticipated changes. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how a leader’s response trickles down throughout an organization. When the leader appears calm, everybody else can feel calm.

Dark-Side Personality Characteristics in Leadership

The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) assesses the dark side of personality using 11 scales that concern how people behave when they stop self-managing. The HDS scales fall into three categories that show stress responses defined by moving away, moving against, or moving toward others:

  • Moving Away – managing a sense of inadequacy by social withdrawal.
  • Moving Against – managing self-doubts by persuading or manipulating others.
  • Moving Toward – managing insecurities by building alliances or seeking approval.

Crises increase stress in everyone, including leaders. The Moving Away category, which comprises five scales, represents the most ineffective responses for a leader during crisis. When people move away in a crisis, they might downplay the size of the problem, ignore the problem, or even deny that it exists.

The type of leader people need during a crisis is realistic, calm, confident, and communicative. The Moving Away derailers are contrary to these qualities. Under pressure, a Cautious leader might become risk averse, reluctant to take initiative, and fearful of mistakes and failure. A Reserved leader may be disinclined to engage and communicate with others and may become overly tough or critical. Excitable means a leader might struggle to remain resilient or productive when faced with setbacks.

Values in Leadership

The Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) uses 10 scales to measure the inside of personality, which consists of values that are often unconscious but determine career satisfaction. Of all the scales, two are associated with handling crises: Affiliation and Security.

Affiliation concerns valuing frequent and varied social interaction. Leaders who score high on Affiliation tend to value networking and feeling a sense of belonging to a group or organization. Affiliation, which is positively associated with leading during crises, is related to showing the people involved in the crisis that you care and are part of their group too. Making people feel valued and supported is the important leadership behavior here.

Security concerns valuing certainty, predictability, and risk-free environments. Leaders valuing Security are often interested in structure, order, predictability, and planning for the future. They might struggle with ambiguity, whereas people who are low in Security are accepting about not knowing all the information or what will happen next. Security, therefore, is negatively associated with crisis leadership. Leaders low in Security are comfortable making decisions in the face of risk and thus tend to handle crises well.

What Can Organizations Do?

Putting it all together, a leader who has what it takes to lead through a crisis can remain calm, accurately evaluate the problem, make decisions quickly and effectively without perfect information, and reassure other people. Organizations can prepare for potential crises by focusing on leadership selection and leadership development.

To find leaders who will effectively lead through a crisis, use a personality assessment to inform hiring decisions. Personality is highly stable, so selecting leaders with low Security or high Ambition, for example, is a wise strategy. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, after all.

If an organization has leaders already in place, leadership development opportunities can help them improve their ability to respond to crises. Development is the behavioral change that results from proactively managing reputation. A quality assessment that measures reputation can help leaders understand how others are likely to see their strengths, potential weaknesses, motivation, and values. With this strategic self-awareness, leaders can learn to adapt their behaviors under stress to perform more effectively.

Crisis is inevitable. Leadership is critical. Organizations with effective leaders in place will handle crises better than those without. With the right leaders in place, crisis becomes an opportunity for organizations to come out ahead.

This post is based on “What It Takes to Lead Through Organizational Crisis,” a presentation given by Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, in conjunction with Peter Berry Consultancy in July 2022. Watch the entire presentation here.