Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

How Leaders Lead on Purpose in Crisis

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Guest post by James E. Lukaszewski

One of the most common weaknesses I see in crisis response is the lack of specific roles and assignments for top management. The result of this gap in crisis management is mismanagement, lack of management, or paralysis that afflicts leaders as they try to figure out what to do while things are leaking, stinking, burning, foaming and worse.

Rather than running the crisis response, six powerful leadership tasks need to be undertaken before, during and after a crisis erupts. In the course of directing client’s crisis responses and analyzing past failed management responses, it’s clear to me that crisis response success depends on having essential leadership responsibilities spelled out carefully for your senior team (or the leaders who survive):


  1. Assert the moral authority expected of ethical leadership. No matter how devastating the crisis, in most cultures forgiveness is possible provided the organization takes appropriate steps. The behaviors, briefly and in order, are:
    • Candor and disclosure (acknowledgement that something adverse has happened or is happening)
    • Explanation and revelation about the nature of the problem (some early analysis)
    • Commitment to communicate throughout the process (even if there are lots of critics)
    • Empathy (intentional acts of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion)
    • Oversight (inviting outsiders, even victims, to look over your shoulders)
    • Commitment to zero (finding ways to prevent similar events from occurring again)
    • Restitution or penance (paying the price – generally doing more than would be expected, asked for, or required)
  2. Take responsibility for the care of victims. The single most crucial element in any crisis is managing the victim dimension. There are three kinds of victims:  people, animals and living systems. It’s top management’s responsibility to see that appropriate steps are taken to care for victim needs. This is both a reputation preservation and a litigation risk reduction activity.

Most devastating responses to crises occur when victims are ignored, when victims’ needs go unfulfilled, or the perpetrator organization refuses to ease the pain, suffering, and victimization of those afflicted. Out of all of the CEO’s responsibilities, taking a personal interest and an active role in the care of victims is the most important.

  1. Set the appropriate tone for the organizational response. Tone refers to an internal management temperament that helps the organization meet the expectations triggered by a crucial, critical, or catastrophic situation. If senior management takes on the posture of being attacked or victimized, the entire organization will react in the same way. Very rarely are large organizations and institutions considered victims.

The most senior executives need to set a constructive tone that encourages positive attitudes and prompt responses. This approach protects the organization’s relationships with various constituents during the response and recovery period, shows respect for victims and reduces trust or reputation damage.

  1. Set the organization’s emotional voice. Put a compassionate face and a voice on the organization as it moves through the crisis. Pick someone who is sensible, positive, candid and willing to be coached
  2. Manage the Attorneys. Remember, Attorneys work for you, not the reverse. However cautious your legal advice, always maintain a positive pressure to resolve victim issues at the earliest opportunity. Compassion with resolution is the work of leaders during crisis.
  3. Commit random acts of kindness and leadership at every level. Leaders acting like leaders has great significance during crisis. Literally walk around and talk to people. Encourage, suggest, knock down barriers, and help everyone stay focused on ending victimization. Rather than huddling in their executive offices trying to determine what to do next, majority of surviving senior executives should be out and about, being motivators and instigators of empathy and compassion.

Focusing on the prevention of similar future occurrences will help victims find closure and provide sufficient evidence that enough lessons have been learned.

Few business problems ever become crises. But all crises are serious leadership problems.  Preparing leaders to act like leaders during crisis can more quickly stop the production of victims, while inspiring everyone to do their best.

James E. Lukaszewski is President of The Lukaszewski Group, a Division of Risdall Marketing. His name appeared in PR Week as one of 22 “crunch-time counselors who should be on your speed dial in a crisis.” Corporate Legal Times listed Jim as, “One of 28 experts to call when all hell breaks loose.” If you’d like more information, please contact Jim directly; visit his website at www.e911.com or request a FREE copy of his E-Book Lukaszewski’s Quick Guide to Crisis Response Planning

The Product Management Perspective: While true ‘crises’ are rare for product managers, you may encounter a ‘mini-crisis’ within your team or division for which your leadership is required. Don’t get caught flat-footed, make a plan for how you will respond.  You leadership will make the difference for your product’s success.

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