Crisis Leadership: The Qualities The Best Leaders Have In Common

in Leadership

By Tim Nelson, Korn Ferry

Consider some of the scenarios that business leaders faced last year: The airline CEO who saw their planes grounded as international – and often domestic – boundaries closed. The retail CEO who was faced with closing every physical shopfront. The CEO of a parcel delivery service who suddenly had more parcels to deliver than ever before and not enough people to deliver them.

And of course, there was the challenge faced by every leader in supporting their people through lockdown and social distancing requirements.

While last year was an extreme example – a one in one hundred year pandemic, we hope – leaders are in the business of dealing with crises, big and small. It’s an important element of the role description and it’s not a case of if the next crisis will arise, but when.

Our ability to rebound from disruptive and stressful events depends largely on the strength of leadership.

Two recent reports by Korn Ferry provide insight into ‘what good looks like’ in leaders in times of crisis. Korn Ferry’s report, The Chair of the Future, imagined the role of the Chair in 2025, and the differences in skills, experiences, and traits that boards need to be building now.  The interviews with Chairs and other business leaders for that report were conducted when the world was experiencing a crisis – the Covid-19 pandemic – and the findings reflected a view from the Chairs that there will be a lasting impact on companies and on society. The key attributes they nominated for a Chair of the future were: high emotional intelligence, resilience, agility, courage, curiosity, and a learning mindset.

Korn Ferry’s report: Crisis-ready leaders; re-shaping our workplaceswas also informed by in-depth interviews with senior business leaders, and found that senior leaders who encountered crises got better results when they applied their emotional intelligence, compared to less effective results when they didn’t.

The research concluded that: ‘when a leader is able to remain clear-headed and composed under stressful, emergency circumstances, that leader is demonstrating emotional intelligence…enabling a sense of objectivity, emotional balance and resilience, self-regulation, and an ability to consider others, in part by staying humble and service-minded.’[1]

Leaders are used to working under pressure and they develop their skills by experiencing challenging environments throughout their career. These challenges offer them an essential training ground. Facing a crisis ups the ante because it can’t be met with the usual responses. And it can create an opportunity for leaders to develop and enhance the behaviours, competencies, and mindset required to develop the four domains of EI introduced by psychologist and best selling author Daniel Goleman [2].

How The Four Domains Of EI Can Help You In A Crisis


Self awareness: Being self aware allows leaders to remain in charge of their emotions. In a crisis, one of the most important side effects of self awareness is the improved capacity to recognise emotions in others. Self aware leaders are more empathetic leaders, able to guide their people through uncertainty.

Self control: The self aware leader is also better positioned to control their responses to emotive and difficult situations. As Daniel Goleman puts it, self control enables the ‘good boss’ in our developed prefrontal cortex, to stand strong against the ‘bad boss’ controlled by our primal emotional centre in the amygdala.

Social awareness: The ability to ‘walk in another’s shoes’ has become one of the distinguishing characteristics of leaders best able to lead through a crisis. Their social awareness allows them to see and understand how the crisis impacts people individually, as well as the business as a whole. It puts them in a better position to succeed without missing something crucial.

Relationship management: A leader’s EI is most visible in how they manage relationships with others. They value collaboration and cooperation, seeking out the views of others and taking them seriously in deciding how to act. What we see is a leader who can bring their people along with them, moving towards a mutually positive understanding.

When the rubber really hits the road, and a crisis of magnitude impacts the business and tests its leader, it is their emotional intelligence that makes the difference between counting the cost of surviving the crisis and coming out of it stronger with the strength and resilience to withstand the next.

1 Evelyn Orr and Signe Spencer, Leading in a Crisis (2020).
2 Daniel Goleman’s Four domains of El: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.


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